First generation, low-income freshmen describe life at Princeton

‘We really are inside a bubble’

At America’s top universities, diversity is an issue: both in terms of racial/ethnic diversity and also in terms of socio-economic diversity. Even when first-gen, low-income (FLI) students make it in, they often struggle to fit in.

Princeton is one of the few schools that is actively trying to change the landscape for FLI students, as the Class of 2021 has the highest Pell Grant recipients ever with 22 percent of the students being Pell Grant eligible.

Princeton also boasts an impressive financial aid package for its undergraduates. To help students acclimate to Princeton’s rigorous academics, FLI students are invited to join the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI)—a seven week summer program where matriculating students take two classes that count towards their GPA. Following FSI, the scholars are encouraged to join Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP) in which students network in a mentorship group and maintain allyship with fellow FLI students. Despite Princeton’s effort, the experiences of FLI students does differ. In the following interviews, two FSI and one non-FSI students from the Class of 2021 reflect on their first week at Princeton.

Jessica Cobian, 18, Class of 2021, from Merrill, Oregon

Intended major: Woodrow Wilson

Intended major: Woodrow Wilson

What challenges have you experienced and what are you anticipating?

There are a lot of hidden fees that I didn’t either think about or I didn’t hear. Like for my Italian class, we have to buy this $100 online thing for semester one, and then buy it again, for a $100, for semester two. That’s $200 that I didn’t expect I had to spend. And then there is the whole eating out thing. I know Princeton tries to make it so you don’t feel like you are low-income, but it is so evident when there are a lot of people eating out and then you really can’t eat out. My roommates are always getting yogurt or bubble tea.

Academically, I am already struggling to stay on top of work and rugby. Just a time management thing. But, also not getting enough sleep sometimes, and just being 100 percent there in the morning is really difficult and it feels as though everyone around me has their act together, while I am trying to scramble and pretend I am doing the same but it’s not been working very well. I don’t know. I anticipate in these upcoming weeks to try and get to the groove of things and hopefully just get better at it. I think classes are definitely gonna start picking up pace and intensity.

What's the main difference between high school and college?

So my high school was a 130 kids. There were 34 in my graduating class. I knew every single one of them. I could tell you who their parents were, where they lived. I could tell you so many things about them. So obviously I came from a very close-knit community. It was the same people all the time. I really loved them. Just coming here, the culture from the West Coast to the East Coast is very different… and just hard to get used to sometimes. Sometimes people don’t mean to be rude and then it comes off rude to me, but that’s just how they were raised. So I have to keep in mind that they are not being rude, although, from where I came from, their actions would be rude. It’s just very different with mannerisms and the place is obviously way bigger, way more resources, to the point where you feel overwhelmed. You need to use all of them but you really can’t because it takes time, and you really don’t have time.

Have you noticed anything that goes against the message of diversity that Princeton preaches?

Oh my gosh, yes. My roommate posted a picture on Instagram of her OA group, and one of the comments was "wow, look at all that diversity." And it was a sarcastic comment because everyone in her OA group was white. And I thought about it, and everyone in my OA group was white. So I was like, whoa! I was like the only person of color in my OA group and in her OA group there was no person of color. So it just got me thinking. I am sure it was totally random but also out of the randomness, there were two groups that were totally white. And for my personal OA group, I was the only low-income. I was also the only one with parents who didn’t have any post-secondary education. And I felt, maybe that’s one of the reasons that I could not connect to my OA group because we simply came from such different backgrounds. It was an odd feeling.

What's your plan for tackling challenges as an FLI student this semester?

The people here are really awesome, obviously. I might not agree with all of them all of the time, which is to be expected, but I definitely want to learn from them, and I want to grow alongside them. So socially I am just really trying to keep an open mind and meet as many people as I can and have open, honest, scholarly conversation with anyone who is willing to. Academically, I am honestly just trying to put in my best effort in all my classes, and whatever I end up with grade-wise, doesn’t matter to me as much as knowing that I did everything I could for that class. And, if it wasn’t the grade I expected, or wanted, then, I think I could live with myself.

Faith Ezinwanne Iloka, 17, Class of 2021, from Trenton, NJ (Born in Nigeria)

Intended major: Psychology or African American Studies

Intended major: Psychology or African American Studies

What challenges have you faced as an FLI student?

I think during FSI (Freshman Scholars Institute) my challenge was with POL; it was just a specific class that I had and it was really difficult. But FSI taught me that you can overcome any challenges because I passed with an A in that class. So that tells you a lot – I learned to work with the resources that were available. With the school year, I think, academically the only thing I’ve been challenged with is balancing my schedule because I’m in this play now and I have to balance that with classes and homework. And it gets pretty overwhelming sometimes, but I think that’s about it. And then socially I don’t think I've ever really had a challenge, just because I’m quite social. But yeah, academically I really want to form a better relationship with my professors. That’s my goal for the academic year.

Have you noticed anything that goes against the message of diversity that Princeton preaches?

Surprisingly, no. Like I actually haven’t found myself feeling like that. I think my circle of people that I’ve met and people that I consider close friends are very welcoming and inclusive. So I haven’t found that yet. But if I do, I will speak on it.

What was Princeton Preview like?

When I came, my group that I had to leave with was already gone. And so we ending up eating at this dining hall and because I was late, everyone was acquainted. So I sat alone. I am sitting in the couch area, just staring at everyone socializing and I’m like, "what the fuck?" And the diversity was very different, so I really didn’t feel included in the environment. And I guess I isolated myself. And then when I was like walking to meet my good friend and I was walking behind four girls who were talking about their freakin’ mansions and shit. One girl is like, "oh yeah, I have mansion in Long Island in this place," and the other girl is like, "I have a mini-mansion."

I was like, "If this is what Princeton is about, I don’t think I will like it." I just did not like the vibe I got from people around here during Preview. But then I met my friends and things changed. I hung out with some diversity, went to see some dance shows, saw DoroBucci, which I got into. And now, I really feel like I am finding my people here. Preview was a bad preview of what the school year would be like.

How was high school different from Princeton?

Well my high school differs significantly because it was very diverse – only African Americans, Africans, and Hispanics. And then here, you have a lot more diversity of Whites, Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Indians. So it’s definitely a difference of the people and I think it’s like the difference in vibe as well because college alone is very rigorous. Everything is just challenging here, so it’s been a whole new thing. And I’ve been thinking like in high school you would have class and you would go home and socialize. With college, you literally live school – you live, breath, and eat school. You go to school whenever. So, yeah, it’s been a weird change. But it’s pretty cool.

What advice do you have for dealing with upcoming challenges?

I think socially if I do encounter someone who is not really inclusive or discriminatory in a certain way, I need to prepare myself for how to handle that. And I think academically, I just need to challenge myself more but not let myself get too stressed or get caught up in the stress because college does come with stress. But it’s not something that I really dwell on. Never let things weigh too heavy on myself.

Aydan Büşra Çelik, 18, Class of 2021, Fair Lawn, NJ

Intended major: Leaning towards ORFE

Intended major: Leaning towards ORFE

What are some challenges you anticipated before coming to Princeton?

The biggest challenge was definitely the academics. I wasn't so concerned about the social scene as much as trying to keep up with the academics. Because you know that a lot of scientists and formulas have been created in Princeton and lowkey I felt I needed to have the same effect in a way. Especially since I struggled with harder courses in high school, I could only imagine how hard it could be at Princeton. Anytime I came across an upperclassmen, I would always ask questions relating to academics.

How much do you sleep?

Very, very little. It’s an issue sometimes, but overall I am living.

How have your social and interpersonal interactions been?

Growing up, I was mainly around my family, and any human contact I had with anyone else was sort of awkward. But over here, you always are surrounded by your classmates. So you always have someone there by your side if you need. And I really enjoy that, whether that’s like, staying up till four or getting a hug when you need it. The social scene here is pretty awesome. Once, it was three o'clock in the morning, and I was just waiting for my friend outside, and someone came up to me, cause I was like sitting down and asked "oh my god, are you OK, can I help you?" And I’m like, "No, I’m fine, I’m sober." I haven’t met anyone terrible yet.

High School v. Princeton?

In high school, you have no choice but to stay with people who you kind of go to school with. And because you all grow up in the same area, they are all are similar in a sense. But here, everyone is so unique and yet we all can find common ground. I really enjoy the social atmosphere here. I thought it was gonna be dead. Because when you say Princeton to others, everyone is like ‘oh my god, they don’t have no parties. Oh my god, like, everyone there just studies all the time.’ I’m like, ‘no, like, it’s not really like that at all.’

As for the academic scene, they are a little different. I don’t have like 9 classes in a day. I don’t wake up at the same time everyday and end the same time everyday. I feel that the work I do here will be worth something, unlike high school, where it is just like, oh okay let’s stick to a curriculum.

What are some anticipated challenges specific to your identity as a FLI student?

I really do not think that I will come across any issues like that. I feel like Princeton not only makes sure to take care of its undergraduate students, but it also makes sure that money isn’t an issue to an extent. The university makes sure that food and money will not be a problem. Which is a very good thing because when those things are on your mind, you can’t focus on the things that matter the most. Can you imagine anywhere else you can essentially eat eight times a day? I haven’t had one problem with money or finances over here at all. I am so thankful for that. I always like to refer to Princeton as this Utopia. You know what I mean? It’s the perfect place. We really are inside our own bubble, but as long as I am in here, I want to make sure I can make the biggest difference I can.

Princeton University