My Experience as a First-generation and Low-income Student at Purdue
The financial aid process isn't the easiest to navigate, but here are some tips for students with a similar background as me.
Hi everyone! I’m Arianna, a senior in CS at Purdue. I’m also a first-generation and low-income student, and I wanted to write this post to discuss my experiences in college and CS from that perspective. For me, it was initially jarring and persistently alienating to hold those identities in college, so I’m hoping that this post will give students from similar backgrounds a bit of guidance and perspective in the same situation. I’m also hoping that this post will give other students insight into this kind of experience, since it’s often not discussed openly. I’ll be discussing these issues from my own perspective and based on my own experiences; keep in mind that other students may have very different experiences, even under very similar circumstances.
I always knew that I wanted to go to college, although I knew it would be difficult; my parents supported me if I wanted to go, but they made it clear that I would have to find a way to pay for my tuition, housing and expenses myself. At Purdue, this can seem to be an impossible goal, especially without financial aid; tuition for in-state students is frozen at $9,992 a year; the cheapest dorm housing is around $5,000 a year; and the cheapest meal plan (in 2018) was $2,000 a year for 8 meals a week. In the CS department, there are additional fees as well, meaning that a student who is expected to finance their own education has to find a way to pay ~$17,000 a year to attend school here.
For those who aren’t familiar with the financial aid process, it starts with an award calculated by the university after acceptance. If you don’t receive enough financial aid in your award package, then your next stop is loans or independent financial aid applications. Loans are terrifying - we all know the statistics about interest rates and timelines, and they scared me, so I personally decided to take these only as a last resort. Independent financial aid is difficult to attain, especially if you don’t come from a privileged background. It requires an unbelievable amount of time and effort; I spent the majority of my senior year of high school applying for financial aid. Because I was also working as much as possible, this meant that I had almost no time to complete schoolwork. You need letters of recommendation, which are difficult to attain if you haven’t had a lot of extracurricular or volunteer opportunities, as many students don’t have. I needed a lot of complicated financial information from my parents (despite the fact that they were not contributing financial support - the law is stupid), which I was only able to access because I had supportive parents with enough free time to help me. You need an extremely impressive resume, as many independent scholarships are ‘need-blind’, meaning that you’re often competing with students from more privileged backgrounds who have had a lot of educational and extracurricular opportunities that you haven’t had (this especially holds for big-ticket scholarships, because they are often seen as a prestigious resume boost). Finally, you have to be able to interview well, which requires the right clothes (expensive), a lot of time to prepare, and confidence. It also requires that you sell yourself to your interviewer, which is personally complicated for students from disadvantaged backgrounds - you have to craft a specific narrative which paints you as both disadvantaged/suffering and accomplished/successful, which requires talking and thinking about yourself in a way that does not feel great.
By the time I started college, I was able to secure scholarships to cover most of my expenses. I continued applying for scholarships at college, and I usually found myself owing at least a few thousand each semester. I had been working and saving money all throughout high school, and I continued working in college - with my savings, I was able to pay my first year’s expenses. I got the cheapest meal plan, which was 8 meals a week; I ate one meal a day and 2 on Mondays. I lost a significant amount of weight during my first semester , which was directly due to limited access to food on campus. My sophomore year, I discovered the on-campus food pantry, and used that to supplement my meal plan, which worked well. Worries about money, food and my future in college were always in the back of my mind, and while they (thankfully) weren’t unmanageable for me, they did cause stress and tension, and detracted from the time I had to study.
Those issues were all real, but fairly impersonal - I could think about practical issues like my finances, access to food, and work hours without emotional involvement. The personal struggles I had as a first-generation student were definitely more personally impactful. Within my first few weeks at Purdue, I started to realize that there seemed to be a particular background which a lot of CS/DS students came from. Whether this was reality or just my perception is hard to say (the department doesn’t release statistics about first-generation or low-income students, so it’s impossible to say whether we have a lower incidence of those types of students than other majors). A lot of my peers came from backgrounds where college education was very normalized, whereas I hadn’t had much exposure to college graduates or preparation for college/white collar careers in my community. I am extremely proud of my community - my most influential, hard-working mentors are from there, and I’ve always felt supported and welcomed at home. have constantly supported me and my siblings. Yet I increasingly found myself unwilling to discuss family or hometown with my peers. I developed two separate identities - one for home, where I felt more comfortable, and one for school, where I was a bit more guarded. This isn’t to say that I didn’t make friends - I did, and the friendships were real. But I could never feel sure of myself or my life at school, when there were so many things that I felt I couldn’t share. By my sophomore year, I had begun to feel totally separate from my classmates, and I also no longer felt comfortable at home; I was constantly divided between two identities, and didn’t feel like I really belonged anywhere. This lack of community was significant for me; I was angry almost all the time. I was mad at my classmates for being different from me, I was mad at my family for being different from my classmates, and I was mad at myself for feeling so conflicted.
These are difficult issues to work through, as most identity struggles are. Ironically, the thing which helped me the most was to try to connect to others; this required me to check the assumptions I made about others, and question the anger I was feeling toward so many people in the community at Purdue. I found that most people shared some sort of struggle or experience, no matter how different they are on the surface; and trying to be as empathetic as possible helped me see that. There are certainly resources on campus for students who are going through a variety of experiences (some are listed below) and I recommend reaching out to them as soon as possible if you are feeling consistently conflicted, as it’s best to try to address those issues early on. As trite as I’m sure it sounds, everyone belongs in Purdue, and everyone belongs in CS/DS, and we all deserve to feel that belonging.
Horizons Student Support Services: https://www.purdue.edu/horizons/ Provides various services (tutoring, food pantry, study space, mentorship, community, etc) to first-generation and low-income students at Purdue.
ACE Food Pantry: https://www.purdue.edu/vpsl/leadership/About/ACE_Campus_Pantry.html Located in the Baptist Student Foundation basement across the street from Honors. Available to any student with a PUID. Offers fresh and shelf-stable food, different offerings each week.
Purdue Financial Aid Office: https://www.purdue.edu/dfa/ They were super useful for me personally - I emailed them a lot about my financial aid package and scholarships, and they always responded quickly and thoroughly.
Financial Counseling: https://www.purdue.edu/recwell/fitness-wellness/wellness/one-on-one-coaching/financial-counseling.php This kind of counseling isn’t specifically for low-income or first-generation students, although it can be helpful for them; it’s a useful tool for anyone who isn’t quite sure how to structure their finances during or after college.
Purdue Office of Diversity & Inclusion: https://www.purdue.edu/diversity-inclusion/ I personally got a lot of benefit from the office of diversity and inclusion within my own college, but this office would apply more broadly to all students at Purdue. If you want, I recommend looking into similar resources at the college level as well.
Center for Career Opportunities: https://www.cco.purdue.edu/?_ga=2.18252985.1084848711.1649645585-1950701448.1636566598 The CCO was helpful in reviewing my resume and helping me prep for interviews, which I didn’t have much independent experience with.
NISO Office: https://www.purdue.edu/niso/ NISO helped connect me with scholarships and opportunities that I never would have otherwise known about. They are super friendly and inclusive, and they made me feel very welcome at Purdue.
‘Free Food at Purdue’ GroupMe: Google the link! This is an informal group chat where students send info about free food being offered on campus. As a freshman, I took advantage of this as often as possible, and I got quite a few catered meals from it!
Other College-level resources are prevalent and they’re usually much more relevant/useful to a student’s career goals. I am not familiar with every college, so I recommend doing some independent research to find some more resources at that level. Various cultural centers on campus were very inclusive and welcoming to me as well, and they are also great places to learn and find more resources.