Blending Identity with Purpose

by Manuel Contreras
July 14, 2014

Maneul Contreras '16 is  a Social Innovation Fellow developing 1vyG, an organization that strengthens and empowers first-generation communities.

There's dozens of sweaty heads staring back at me. The humid Providence air circles around us and the Brown Bear statue is finally within sight. I'm giving a tour to 50 high school students from EMERGE, a Houston community-based organization that supports high-achieving, low-income or first-generation college students enroll in post-secondary education.

As I stand before them, like I've done dozens of times in front of tours, I tell them why I picked Brown - how I compensated for not being able to afford to visit the colleges I applied to by watching hours of YouTube videos, how it almost seemed like God's grace beckoned me towards Providence and Brown, and how thankful I am to be surrounded by the most amazing individuals I've ever met.

And as I'm finishing up, I make eye contact with a high schooler. As I survey over them one last time, I realize that this isn't a group like any other. These students are me; they're my classmates and friends from my old neighborhood, students driven to succeed regardless of their circumstances.

As I stand before them, I catch another wind. I tell them that "these schools were not made for us, but we have to make them ours." Brown and other highly-selective institutions were not designed to serve the best or the brightest, they were made to serve future leaders, which mostly means students from families with social capital, wealth, and a strong network. When your education leads to social mobility like it does for many first-generation college students, but your culture, family, and upbringing reflect blue-collar values and low socioeconomic status roots, surviving and thriving in college is a distinct challenge.

The phenomenon to attract first-generation college students as another measure of diversity started in the mid-2000s. While many universities have successfully recruited increasing numbers of first-generation college students, there hasn't been enough thought put into to how to best aid these students maximize their potential in higher education. At the same time, universities haven't thought enough about how to tap into what first-gens offer - the richness that comes with lived experiences of social policies aimed at the lower classes, the wealth of understanding how inner-city or rural communities operate, or the fundamental realization that there exist other worlds outside of the bubbles created by highly-selective institutions.

That's why I'm working on 1vyG, the inter-Ivy, first-generation college student network. I'm dedicating my summer and hopefully time after Brown to steer higher education into realizing that first-generation college students are not a problem; we're a group that needs specific, communal supports. We work to reorient the rhetoric first-gens hear: my classmates and I are successful because of, not in spite of, our circumstances.

As my team and I continue to work throughout the summer, we're realizing the vastness of issues surrounding educational inequality. Fixing education for both first-generation college students and continuing education students is a lifetime of work. For now, we're working on galvanizing universities and students to evaluate their first-generation programming with the expectation that when students from EMERGE and their peers enroll in college, they are met with opportunities and rhetoric that make them feel at home at their respective colleges. Every student deserves the chance to go to college, and every student deserves to feel like they belong.