Digital Diaries Episode 7: Life as a first-generation and/or low income student

Erica Schmitt, Assistant Audio Editor



On episode seven of Digital Diaries, we talk to two students about their experiences as a first generation low income student at Northwestern.


ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt and this is episode seven of Digital Diaries, a weekly podcast following what students are doing and asking two students one question about life at Northwestern.

[scribble noise]

ERICA SCHMITT: This week’s question is: What is your experience as a low-income student at Northwestern?

ERICA SCHMITT: Weinberg freshman Megan Lin identifies as first-generation and/or low-income, also known as FGLI. She said one of the recent struggles she faced was figuring out whether the school insurance policy would cover all of her medical expenses.

MEGAN LIN: I had a lot of questions at times — I didn’t really know who to ask. For example, a few weeks ago I was having a panic attack and some people were telling me you should go to the hospital, whatnot. But like, because of how clueless I was — like how the insurance would work out and whether or not I would be able to pay for it, like pay for the rest — I just was refusing to and so that was one thing that came up already.

ERICA SCHMITT: Lin said it has been hard to connect with students who don’t identify as FGLI.

MEGAN LIN: I just can’t really relate to some of the things that people are talking about. Or, like, sometimes I see students talking about how they’re going to go home for Thanksgiving. I see people go home on a plane every other week and I’m like, “How do you afford that?”

ERICA SCHMITT: And through these conversations, Lin noticed some differences between her and other students who come from more privileged backgrounds.

MEGAN LIN: As I’ve been here I feel like there’s a lot of times I’ve felt out of place, cause I’m like wow, everyone’s parents are like professors or like doctors or whatnot and then like my parents, they’re just cooks like, I feel so unspecial. I would hear about how some other students, they would have like internships, because they had connections where I’m like, I don’t really have that and I didn’t know what to expect academically. I feel like some people when they go into college, they already like have a game plan or they’re told like, “Oh, this is what you should look out for,” or they’re getting tips on how to survive — I’m just kind of like winging it, I guess.

ERICA SCHMITT: While at home, Lin helped her parents out with the cooking. But now at college, she is unable to do so. However, Lin said she participates in work study to cover her expenses so she doesn’t have to ask her parents for money and is still able to lend a helping hand.

MEGAN LIN: I’m grateful that I’m able to find a work study job that pays pretty decent and it’s not too hard work. So like, it’s not too stressful for me to balance with my schoolwork. But like I just think about sometimes how, for example, my roommates, they don’t have to work and a lot of the people that I also know, they don’t really have to work but like I have to work and sometimes that can conflict with my schedule and when I hang out with people and whatnot.

ERICA SCHMITT: Lin expressed that she also notices a difference in her college experience through the clothing she wears and her dorm room appearance.

MEGAN LIN: I wear like the same clothes — I don’t have a lot of clothing. So when it gets cold, I can’t just change my wardrobe. I would just have to layer a bunch of them — wash my laundry like every other day. I’m in a triple and so I have two roommates. Sometimes it makes me really think. Both of them have a lot of decorations and whatnot. And my side of the room, I don’t have the money to find decorations for my corner and if I did, it’s not really something I would prioritize because I’m trying to prioritize getting some clothing or getting some food first.

ERICA SCHMITT: Lin participated in the Summer Academic Workshop, or SAW, over the summer — a three-week program to acclimate FGLI students to NU. This allowed her to connect with other people who understood her circumstances.

MEGAN LIN: There, I was able to find some community and other students went through the same struggles as me. And they also gave me, like, free bedsheets and water bottles and a backpack. So that was nice.

ERICA SCHMITT: Even when it gets tough, Lin said she was always told getting a degree is the way out of generational poverty — a motivation and reminder to herself while she is at NU.

MEGAN LIN: The experiences that I’ve gotten from my parents and the stories that they’ve shared, like I still think about and I still hold with me. Whether it be like in a form of gratitude or in a way that motivates me to get through the quarter.

[scribble noise]

ERICA SCHMITT: SESP senior Kasha Akhtar identifies as a FGLI student and is also a QuestBridge scholar. She said her mom got a degree in Pakistan, but when coming to the U.S. for asylum, she had no experience with the American education system.

KASHA AKHTAR: I never really got the support in terms of navigating the college experience, although my mom always kind of drilled it into me, “Hey, you need to get a college degree.”

ERICA SCHMITT: Akhtar’s first defining experience as a FGLI student at college was in her first year.

KASHA AKHTAR: I had a roommate who came from the same like, ethnic background as me. I remember one day she kind of sat me down and she was like, “Hey, let’s tell each other the story of our lives.” She’s like, “Yeah, basically I grew up pretty privileged,” I’m kind of just summarizing how I understood from what she was saying. And then it was like, the way I had explained my experiences, she was just really kind of shocked at the differences. And it was also just a really jarring thing that you can just sit down and be like, “Hey, let’s just tell each other in five minutes what our whole lives are,” especially coming from a background where there have been financial struggles, where I don’t have both parents in the household. And where it’s just one of those things that just felt really off to me and there have definitely been other people who are in maybe similar shoes, who have kind of not quite understood or acknowledged the difference in my experience.

ERICA SCHMITT: Akhtar said that while there are some issues she has faced, her overall experience has been positive with support from friends and the University.

KASHA AKHTAR: It’s just been one of those things where it’s like, I don’t necessarily look at “Hey, like there are a lot of people here who have grown up in better situations than I have.” They don’t understand my perspective and tend to just be very privileged in how they approach different student issues at the University. Like that’s definitely an issue, but I also feel like the defining feature hasn’t been like what’s lacking but the fact that I do have friends and just very good people who are willing to advocate for me, who have advocated for me and who also just like care about me and understand where I’m coming from.

ERICA SCHMITT: Akhtar is the co-president of Quest+, a student organization for FGLI students and QuestBridge scholars. She expressed that being a part of the FGLI community means a lot to her as she gets to put on inclusive events, like an ice cream social during Wildcat Welcome and a Thanksgiving dinner for students who can’t go home over the break. Akhtar added that Quest+ also helped implement Book for ‘Cats, a program providing loaned textbooks to students who can’t afford them.

KASHA AKHTAR: Being a part of that has been just a really amazing thing. I think something that just reminds me of why I do any of this in the first place or why I even cared to talk about my FGLI experience is, you know, on my executive board, one member, she’s like, “Yeah, when I came to Northwestern, like I didn’t know anyone here, I didn’t really know who to like reach out to if I needed something, but I knew one thing — I knew to trust Kasha.” And I was like, I never really realized that, you know? I mean like, I knew there was impact, but that was just a really heartwarming moment for me.

[scribble noise]

ERICA SCHMITT: Do you have any advice for FGLI students on campus?

MEGAN LIN: There are people that you don’t know their story and like sometimes we are going through some things, like people can be going through similar things and we don’t know it. So trying to find community, and like there are also a bunch of resources on campus, I just also got a free winter coat through the winter gear program — that was really helpful.

ERICA SCHMITT: Akhtar recommends two things.

KASHA AKHTAR: One is definitely reach out to the Quest community. I know I’m available always for advice. My whole executive board is, the community is really supportive, so just finding those people and being part of that community is important. I think the other thing is be willing to advocate for yourself — it’s going to be hard. There’s going to be a lot that’s wrong, whether they mess up your financial aid or just people being aggressive or passive aggressive and just not understanding your experiences. There’s ways to be polite about it, for sure. And sometimes it calls for just being like, this is my stance, this is who I am. And you can’t take that away from me.


ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt. Thanks for listening to episode seven of The Daily’s Digital Diaries. This episode was reported and produced by me. The Audio Editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lawrence Price, the Digital Managing Editor is Angeli Mittal and the Editor-in-chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear next week’s episode on Monday.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @eschmitt318

Digital Diaries Episode 1: Adjusting to Northwestern
Digital Diaries Episode 3: Dealing with Rejection
Digital Diaries Episode 6: Navigating the Northwestern social scene