The Art of Being FLI

When you walk through Memorial Lobby (better known as Lobby 10), you never know what you might find. The space has long been a campus hub for any manner of activities—from students tabling for their organizations and the iconic glass pumpkin sale to the MIT Juggling Club practicing their craft.

On a sunny, crisp Wednesday in November, passersby likely saw a sea of students affiliated with MIT’s First Generation/Low Income (FLI) Program in Lobby 10 milling about in matching red sweatshirts. In addition to chatting and nibbling on cookies, many of them wrote down affirmations on envelope-sized cards, which were then displayed in the lobby and Infinite Corridor.

One read: When I need motivation, I remind myself… “I’ve gone a long way despite my FLI background.”

I am most proud of… “being able to join a community like FLI and meeting lifelong friends,” said another.

A third declared: My FLI affirmation is… “The past built you, everything converged to make you belong here.”

The affirmations were a powerful way to give voice to the students’ identity on the last day of the FLI Program’s Week of Celebration, timed to coincide with the National First-Generation College Celebration on November 8. (The date marks the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act in 1965, which established federal financial aid programs.)

One of the goals of the week-long festivities was to raise awareness of the FLI experience. By that measure, the event in Lobby 10 was a big success. “I kept overhearing people say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many FLI students. I didn’t know this was that big of a deal at MIT,’” says junior Kanokwon Tungkitkancharoen, executive director of the FLI Student Advisory Board. “Someone even posted on MIT Confessions about how happy they were to see so many people in the red FLI sweatshirts. I thought, ‘Wow, someone posted that? That tells me that people really felt something that day.’”

Uncovering the “hidden curriculum”

During the week’s activities, students had an opportunity to get to know FLI Program staff, enjoy goodies such as sushi or cupcakes, and learn about support resources and wellness strategies. They also received FLI swag, including stickers and the red sweatshirts, both of which feature the program’s new logo: Tim the Beaver launching a paper airplane.

The launch metaphor is fitting; the FLI Program is taking off in new directions and growing steadily. What began informally over a decade ago as the First Generation Project, with part-time assistance from one administrator, has become one of the cornerstones of the new Undergraduate Advising Center (UAC). “We are so excited to be building upon and expanding this program,” says Diep Luu, associate dean and director of the UAC. “About 18% of our undergraduates are first-gen students—the first in their family to go to college—and 25% are low-income. These cohorts overlap, as well; about 12% are both first-gen and low-income. So, this is sizable population that has specific needs and deserves our support.”

“MIT does a really great job at financial aid, because it meets 100% of financial need and its admissions is need-blind,” says Tungkitkancharoen. As a result, she adds, “There’s a lot of FLI students at MIT compared to schools of similar rigor. But just admitting is not enough. You have to provide resources to carry us through the institution.”

Oftentimes, FLI students have to navigate issues that they are less familiar or comfortable with than other students. Asal Vaghefzadeh, a junior and member of the FLI Advisory Board, notes that developing financial literacy and gaining career-related skills can be particularly challenging. “A lot of FLI students don’t have as much experience networking as other students do, or resources for networking, like family members or family friends,” she says.

In 2021, two Institute reports set in motion a concerted effort to improve the FLI experience. Task Force 2021 called for the implementation of a stronger undergraduate advising structure, where students are supported by a team of professional advisors that works with them from admission to graduation. The report acknowledged that “students arrive with varying previous experiences and levels of knowledge about how to fully access MIT’s considerable resources. What is sometimes called ‘the hidden curriculum’ of success needs to be uncovered and made available to every student regardless of their starting point.”

Meanwhile, the First Generation/Low Income Working Group identified many gaps in support for FLI undergraduate students, such as the need for more career advising, opportunities for community-building, and help navigating MIT’s complex landscape of resources.

Promising growth potential

Armed with the reports’ findings and drawing on stakeholders’ ongoing input, the FLI Program is poised for growth. “We are currently embarking on a comprehensive listening tour and strategic review of the landscape, to ensure that our actions are informed by a deep understanding of the needs and aspirations of FLI students in four key areas, what we call our ‘pillars’ of FLI: community, academics, professional development, and advocacy,” says Sade Abraham, associate dean of advising and student belonging.

The UAC plans to add several full-time staff members to the FLI Program in the next few years. In the meantime, Abraham and her colleague Alex Hoyt, assistant dean for FLI student advising and success, are busy promoting resources and information through a weekly FLI newsletter and planning a lengthy docket of activities, including a monthly faculty lunch series, community dinners, wellness events, study breaks, outings, and academic and professional development opportunities. FLI student leaders are actively involved in the planning and also devote time to novel projects and ideas. For example, Vaghefzadeh is leading an effort to trace the FLI experience at MIT to raise visibility. “The goal is to have this concise and well-recorded history that people can see and interact with,” she says. Ultimately, she envisions presenting the information through a timeline and mini-exhibition outside Hayden Library.

One growth area for the program will be involving more FLI-identifying faculty. Ed Bertschinger, a professor of physics, has been engaged in FLI programming since 2013. As a former FLI student himself, he prefers to focus not on what these students lack but on what they have—like “cultural capital,” as he puts it. “Community cultural wealth, including family relationships and traditions, are important for all students, yet they are rarely recognized in academic settings. FLI students have an incredible diversity culturally and demographically. The community they form, with help from MIT, helps each member achieve their full potential.”

Hoyt can see the downstream impact of that potential very clearly. “FLI students are often thoughtful about not only their journey, but also the larger impact they can have as educational pioneers in their family and community. They’re passionate about leaving MIT as a better institution for the FLI community than when they entered, putting efforts into projects that will improve future FLI students’ MIT experience,” he says.

This article was written by Elizabeth Durant of the Office of the Vice Chancellor and was originally published on MIT News on January 17, 2024.

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