MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIV No. 3
January / February 2012
A Contrarian View of MITx:
What Are We Doing!?
Freshman Advising and MITx
MITx: MIT's Vision for Online Learning
First Generation Project Launched
A Message from the First Generation Project Student Executive Board
We Gotta Have HOPE
FPC Subcommittee to Review IAP
Glass at MIT: Beauty and Utility
Memorial Service for Bob Silbey
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Under-Represented Minority Faculty and Students: 1987–2012
A Women as Percentage of Total Undergraduates, Graduate Students,
and Faculty: 1901–2012
Printable Version

First Generation Project Launched

Miri Skolnik and John Belcher

MIT is proud of its commitment to First Generation students. First Generation students, those whose parents do not have college degrees, comprise 16% of the MIT student population, approximately 800 students in total (undergraduate and graduate). The critical importance of this population surpasses its sheer numbers, as this segment of the student body plays a vital role in the richness of an MIT education. Moreover, the presence of First Generation students reflects one of MIT's key values: its dedication to guaranteeing equal and affordable access to higher education. Yet, in spite of their essential contribution to MIT, this population has been largely invisible as a distinct group – until now.

In the spring of 2011, the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming launched the First Generation Project (FGP), in order to bring more visibility to the unique needs and remarkable accomplishments of these students (see the message from the FGP Student Executive Board in an accompanying article). A public forum now exists for these students to address their shared experiences, the challenges they face, and the collective resourcefulness they bring to bear as the "first in the family" to attain such achievement.

The need for such a forum was inspired by hearing students' personal stories. In our roles at Students Support Services (MS) and as a teacher in the GIRs (JB), we have found that many First Generation students grapple with their common challenges in isolation, believing that they are alone in their experiences. Our hope is that the First Generation Project, and the sense of community it provides, will help replace this isolation with an empowering sense of connection for these students.

Over the past year, important collective themes have emerged as First Generation students, faculty, and staff have come together at various events hosted by the FGP. These themes represent the following important lessons that:

  • FG students often face pronounced financial hardships and concerns about providing for their family's well-being. This concern often influences their choice of major, the need to work many hours while in school, and the recurring dilemma of whether to stay in school, or go home and work full time to help support their families.
  • FG students experience the challenge of navigating the university system on their own, without the specific first-hand knowledge that comes from parents who are college graduates, resulting in a lack of familiarity with how to approach professors, engage in professional networking, or know the unwritten norms or “social script” that helps most students negotiate university culture. Many FG students reported that upon applying to MIT, their parents did not know where, or what, MIT was, nor would their parents have the opportunity to visit MIT until their son or daughter graduates.
  • FG students often cope with a sense of alienation from peers who are more financially privileged and shoulder fewer family responsibilities.
  • FG students often experience an increasing gulf between themselves and their own families, who do not share their growing exposure to new regions, new concepts, new populations, new resources, new technologies, and, at times, new value systems.
  • FG often feel significant pressure to excel as the “first in the family” to make it to college, and the one who can provide social mobility to their family.
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It goes without saying that in spite of these circumstances, FG students possess tremendous resourcefulness, survival skills, initiative, and self-reliance. Additionally, FG students often have a commitment to giving back to their communities, and a sensitivity to what their communities need.

From these FGP events came a resounding consensus that an ongoing, Institute-supported program was needed to address the concerns of this population. Since then, a Student Executive Board has been formed, with a faculty advisor (JB). If you resonate with this issue and would like to get involved in helping MIT become a more supportive place for First Generation students, please e-mail either one of the authors ( or or the Student Executive Board of the FGP (

Miri Skolnik, Assistant Dean-Student Support Services, has been working at MIT for 4 years, and is strongly committed to raising awareness about First Generation student concerns and experiences.

Professor John Belcher has taught at MIT for over 40 years. He was a Principal Investigator on the Voyager Mission to the Outer Planets (now the Voyager Interstellar Mission). His father dropped out of school in the seventh grade.

First Generation Student Voices

The following is a personal reflection from Ruben Alonzo, one of the founding members of this project. A recent MIT graduate, and winner of the national Truman Scholarship for outstanding achievement in public service, Ruben's story exemplifies both the struggles, and tremendous resilience, of MIT's First Generation students.

Ruben Alonzo's Story:
“When I look back at my time at MIT, two days in particular stand out from the
rest. The first, my visit in April 2008: Campus Preview Weekend. I had only found out about MIT three months before the application was due. My high school calculus teacher, Ms. Martinez, introduced me to the idea only after hearing about my decision to enlist in the military – a decision I was making to help support my family.

“My family and I were migrant farm workers living in Crystal City, Texas. In 1999, Crystal City was among the top 25 poorest cities in America. I had lost my father to drugs and my older brother was serving a six-year prison sentence. At that point in time, joining the armed forces wasn't such a bad idea. However, when I visited MIT, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Never in my life was I surrounded by so many intellectuals. To this day, I describe MIT students as ambitious young people using their talents for the common good. April 10, 2008: that was the day I decided I would use MIT as the vehicle to lift my family out of poverty.

“The other day I will cherish forever is June 3, 2011: Commencement Day. After four brutal years, my classmates and I had finally made it to graduation. However, this road had almost ended just as soon as it had begun. In only my second week of class during my freshman year, my mother delivered the news that she had been diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. Treatments required traveling to a cancer clinic 100 miles away from Crystal City, a trip she could barely afford. Without a father or older brother to rely on, the financial burden fell on my shoulders. After my freshman fall semester, I never purchased another textbook again, in order to send all of my money home to my family. The absence of textbooks never compared to the days I went hungry. One person who got me through this difficult time was my academic advisor, Dr. Karl W. Reid, who at the time was the director of the Office of Minority Education. My advisor made an effort to understand and empathize with my desire to leave MIT and return home to my family. Dr. Reid did not pretend to care – he cared. He was invested in my family's uncertain future. Despite the difficult journey, my mother and I made it to graduation. Sitting there in the audience as I walked across the stage was my mother, who had never seen MIT before. Accompanying her in the audience was Ms. Martinez, my high-school calculus teacher, who went on to winMIT's Inspirational Teacher of the Year Award.

 “In my desire to help close the achievement gap in our nation, I am currently attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education. There I am in the process of creating smart and thoughtful charter school designs. These designs will provide structural influences and professional development in public schools to help reduce racial stratification and injustice. MIT provided the fuel to keep my passion lit. It is my hope that other first generation students will also pursue their heart's work, and will be guided by caring mentors such as my advisor.”

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