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Credit: Isabel Liang

First-year first-generation, low-income students reported a difficult adjustment to campus and social life at a forum with FGLI student organizations and campus leaders.

The forum, held over Zoom on March 25 by the Greenfield Intercultural Center, Penn First Plus, and PENNCAP, was moderated by Undergraduate Assembly President and College senior Mercedes Owens and UA Vice President and College junior Mary Sadallah, both of whom identify as FGLI students. Owens and Sadallah invited students to speak about their experiences while sharing their own efforts to help FGLI students — and particularly first years — adjust to campus life at Penn.

A primary concern shared by students was feeling a lack of community while taking virtual classes. College first year and Penn First board member Alex Wenig said that, although some student groups have attempted to host virtual social events, it has been difficult to get to know other students through Zoom.

Some students also said that grappling with feelings of inadequacy and impostor syndrome as FGLI students has been a struggle. College first year Jake Howe said that he has had to learn not to compare his progress to that of other students.

“As a FGLI student, it’s hard when you see everyone looks like they have it together and they’re managing to balance everything, and you’re sitting there, and you’re like, ‘I’m behind on three assignments, I don’t know what’s going on,’” Howe said. “It’s really not the reality. Everyone is going through their own struggles.”

P1P Executive Director Marc Lo said that he and P1P staff aim to make the transition for FGLI students as smooth as possible by providing a safe space through the new P1P office and hosting events such as the forum. He added that he wants students to realize that struggling academically and socially during their first few semesters at Penn is normal.

“It’s our hope and aspiration that very quickly upon arriving at Penn, every single FGLI student comes to the realization that Jake just made,” he said.

GIC Director Valerie De Cruz said she has noticed that FGLI students in particular are prone to experiencing impostor syndrome, the idea that a person succeeds due to luck instead of talent or qualifications. When a FGLI student performs poorly in a course, she said, they are more likely to blame themselves instead of speaking with their professors.

“If we didn’t do well in a course, we say, ‘Oh my goodness — I didn’t study hard enough, I didn’t do that,’” De Cruz said. “The students I work with who do not experience as much of impostor syndrome, the first thing they ask is, 'Did the professor grade my paper appropriately? Maybe they missed something.'”

Owens reassured first-year students that, as a FGLI student at Penn, she also dealt with similar challenges when she first arrived. 

“The big thing about being in an underrepresented group is getting to the same place as other people with less,” she said. “And in order to do that you had to try harder, you had to do more.”

Student attendees praised the event, with some saying that they were excited to connect with members of the Penn FGLI community to discuss their experiences during the virtual semesters. They applauded the event organizers for creating a welcoming space to meet new people and expressed excitement at the prospect of similar forums in the future.

“It felt very unifying,” Wenig said. “I haven’t really come into contact with [FGLI organizations and] groups this semester, or the whole year, so it was nice that I was able to have an opportunity to ask questions and talk to other people in a year where everything seems so distant.”

Sadallah said that she and Owens have aimed throughout their UA leadership tenure to connect with the FGLI community because they feel past UA leaders have overlooked FGLI students.

"Mercedes and I have really tried to champion FGLI students in all the activism that we’ve done because past UA presidents have kept FGLI students in the back of their mind,” Sadallah said.

Owens echoed Saddallah's sentiments. 

“It’s been important to make sure that we’re asking what people need," Owens said.