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Credit: Insia Haque

I grew up in a neighborhood in Toronto where simply graduating high school was considered an achievement. In my community, attending a local community college was seen as a significant success. Yet, I found myself crossing international borders to attend Penn, one of the most selective institutions globally. To those I grew up with, I was the embodiment of success — the girl from Rexdale who escaped the pervasive struggles of our neighborhood.

My high school experience was marked by frequent police presence, deemed necessary "just in case." Lockdowns were not out of the ordinary; they were part of our routine. I played the role of a second mother to my three younger siblings and often acted as a mediator between my parents. Our household faced numerous challenges: sometimes the cupboards were bare, leading us to subsist on instant meals from discount stores, or we would find ourselves without hot water, necessitating bucket baths heated on the stove. Our financial instability was such that losing our home was a looming threat, despite renting out part of it to make ends meet. Police interventions at home were so frequent that I had the local division’s number saved for quick dialing.

Arriving at Penn introduced a different kind of challenge: one that was mentally taxing in ways I hadn't anticipated — and it wasn’t Penn's fault. When I began applying to universities in the U.S., I learned that I would be classified as a first-generation, low-income student. At the time, this label seemed merely descriptive and unimportant. I was only 16 and quite naive about its implications.

The academic culture shock hit me during my first biology class at Penn. The professor casually mentioned concepts we "should have encountered in high school." Many of my classmates had taken Advanced Placement Biology while I hadn't even heard of it before. From day one, I felt behind. My school back home could barely afford basic electives, let alone AP courses. This sense of being perpetually behind followed me into my math classes where even the supposedly introductory courses felt like advanced levels. Despite dropping down to MATH 1300, I struggled immensely and earned a C which only fueled my burgeoning imposter syndrome.

Back home, survival required a certain level of emotional detachment. Dwelling on family issues risked unwanted CPS interventions. Personal challenges had to be set aside to make ends meet like waking up early to help with food deliveries to keep our utilities running. For 17 years, I never truly relaxed; there was always something demanding my attention. Arriving at Penn was the first time I could pause and reflect on the accumulated stresses of my past. At Penn, I not only knew about mental health resources available but had direct access to them. Back home, I didn't have the luxury of accessing mental health resources due to financial barriers; we simply had to keep going. So, I did — until I couldn't.

Anthony Jack, a Harvard professor, studied the unique experiences of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend elite schools. I would describe myself as part of the "doubly disadvantaged," a term coined by Jack. It refers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend elite universities after having gone to underfunded, local high schools.

The sacrifices I made to attend Penn were significant, encompassing more than just financial strain. According to Jennifer Morton, a Penn professor, these sacrifices include "ethical goods," such as values and relationships that are crucial to our moral development and to living a meaningful life. These goods are unique and irreplaceable. 

Back home, they call me "Ivy." My parents say I'm starting to sound American. I wrestle with survivor's guilt, aware of opportunities I have that my siblings will likely never access. Before coming back from my medical leave, I ended up having to use the money I saved up for America to buy things around the house for my family. As a result, in my first semester back from leave, I struggled to buy my own groceries. I am lucky that, with just a few emails, Student Intervention Services was able to help me out. I felt guilty coming home to empty cupboards last spring after this experience, however, and didn't know how to deal with it.

My experience as an athlete at Penn brought its own set of challenges. Adjusting to different food options, managing costly groceries, and aligning my meals with athletic training were daunting tasks that impacted my ability to perform and maintain the necessary weight. Despite the privileges of attending Penn, such as waived enrollment fees and substantial financial aid, the FGLI struggle encompasses more than just financial issues. I was unaware of how to effectively interact with professors or even recognize the worthiness of their time, unlike my more affluent peers.

This narrative isn't about airing grievances but about highlighting the unique challenges faced by FGLI students. Penn has provided substantial financial support, but there is a glaring need for targeted mental health resources. Mental health support is essential for us because we often encounter unique stresses related to academic preparedness, cultural adjustments, and financial worries which can exacerbate feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome. As the University tries to create a more diverse student body and elevate more members of underrepresented communities, the onus is placed on Penn to truly create an environment that allows these students to thrive once they matriculate.

I mentioned a lot of resources at Penn that can help FGLI students, but they’re not advertised. I didn’t know about them until I took my medical leave. It shouldn’t take having to be hospitalized to be aware of these resources. These resources, like SIS, could have helped prevent my hospitalization in the first place. It wasn’t until I told my Penn therapist about my food insecurity that I learned that SIS could help in these matters. It wasn’t until after the hospitalization that I learned about the extent to which my Penn insurance covered expensive mental treatments outside of school that would have supported me without taking a leave. 

Succeeding as a FGLI student at Penn — or any elite institution — requires more than just financial aid; it demands comprehensive support that addresses both academic and emotional needs.

OMONYE OSEZUA is a junior studying computational biology from Toronto. Her email is