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fgli-group-portrait
Credit: Helen Fetaw

Breaks are an interesting time to be on Penn’s campus. Even during fall break, the exodus of students out of their dorms and away from West Philadelphia to their destinations is a sight to behold.

I stayed here for fall break — four days with the Quad’s showers empty, and the trees still green. Many of my friends stayed behind too, and while we enjoyed spending time together, not being able to see family can be difficult, especially for freshmen.

For many of my friends who are first-generation, low-income students, traveling to see their families just wasn’t an option. Physical distance and financial cost are a stifling duo. Unfortunately, the challenges of being a FGLI student extend far greater than going back home on breaks and can include food insecurity and even paying for textbooks.

It is first-generation celebration this week at Penn, so now is the time to think about our individual privileges and how we can make this campus more socially inclusive. At Penn, privilege permeates campus; it is inseparable from the University and plays a part in much of our Penn experience. As a community, we must recognize where this privilege manifests, when things we take for granted may not be universally accessible, and how we can make our time here more inclusive to all.

I must start by first recognizing that FGLI students have always been a part of the Penn community, and that one out of every seven undergraduates are first-generation, a statistic which has increased in recent years. Broader than the student body, many of Penn’s most famous people are also first-generation college graduates, including Amy Gutmann and John Legend.

While Penn has made strides in opening resource channels for FGLI students, such as providing grant-based financial aid in 2007 and creating the Penn First Plus office in 2019, concerns about access to and the amount of resources for FGLI students remain.

Arguably the most important resource that FGLI students can have is a supportive community, something that is not necessarily a given at Penn. It doesn’t take much time at Penn to see the vast resource divide within our student body. While some families can gift their children billions one year after graduation, others have to pull money together to buy a Penn-branded shirt after acceptance.

I will admit that these are extremes, but everyday instances reveal our varying degrees of privilege. One of my friends ordered the new AirPods without batting an eyelash, while another had to use her obsolete laptop with a half-dead screen for months before she was able to replace it. There are many other aspects of Penn’s culture that are not accessible to FGLI students, like the circuit of BYOs or a daily $4 coffee addiction. In fact, some of Penn’s on-campus dining options (like Franklin’s Table) don’t accept PennCash or dining dollars, which can make these places options only for those with considerable spending money.

The net result of these differences are feelings of exclusion for many FGLI students on campus. Given Penn’s economic differences, these juxtapositions in experience are natural. To be clear, this is not intended to shame those with the means to go through college without worrying about income, but the first step in minimizing inequities is recognizing that they exist.

Once you get past recognition, the next step is shifting conversations from topics accessible to few to conversations applicable to all. Talking about the country you visited over winter break can be painful to someone without a passport in the same way that asking your friend what FAFSA is can be seen as an offhand indicator of your family’s financial status.

Without taking these steps we let our campus divides go unchecked and maintain an unhealthy level of exclusivity that directly counters what a college education should give to each student. We must strive to make Penn more inclusive, and taking small steps lets us demonstrate that we see our classmates as peers.

ALFREDO PRATICÒ is a College freshman from Philadelphia, Pa. His email address is pratico@sas.upenn.edu.

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