Mastering the FLI Way

When you step into Memorial Lobby (commonly known as Lobby 10), you never know what surprises await you. The area has always been a central hub for various activities, ranging from student organizations promoting their causes and the famous glass pumpkin sale, to members of the MIT Juggling Club honing their juggling skills.

On a sunny and crisp Wednesday in November, passersby would have noticed a crowd of students affiliated with MIT’s First Generation/Low Income (FLI) Program in Lobby 10, all wearing matching red sweatshirts. In addition to mingling and enjoying some cookies, many of them took the time to write affirmations on small cards, which were then displayed in the lobby and Infinite Corridor.

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

Another student proudly declared: I am most proud of… “being able to join a community like FLI and meeting lifelong friends.”

A third affirmation stated: My FLI affirmation is… “The past shaped who you are, everything led you to belong here.”

These affirmations provided a powerful means for students to express their identity on the final day of the FLI Program’s Week of Celebration, which coincided with the National First Generation College Celebration on November 8th. (This date marks the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act in 1965, which established federal financial aid programs.)

One of the main objectives of this week-long celebration was to raise awareness about the FLI experience. In that regard, the event in Lobby 10 was a huge success. Kanokwon Tungkitkancharoen, executive director of the FLI Student Advisory Board, recounts, “I kept hearing people say, ‘I didn’t know there were so many FLI students. I didn’t realize this was such a big deal at MIT.’ 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.'”

Revealing the “hidden curriculum”

Throughout the week’s activities, students had the opportunity to get to know the FLI Program staff, enjoy treats such as sushi or cupcakes, and learn about various support resources and wellness strategies. They also received FLI merchandise, including stickers and the iconic red sweatshirts featuring the program’s new logo: Tim the Beaver launching a paper airplane.

This launch metaphor perfectly encapsulates the FLI Program’s current trajectory and continuous growth. What initially started informally over a decade ago as the First Generation Project, with only part-time assistance from one administrator, has evolved into one of the key pillars of the newly established Undergraduate Advising Center (UAC). Diep Luu, associate dean and director of the UAC, expresses enthusiasm about the program’s development, stating, “We are extremely excited to build upon and expand this program. Approximately 18 percent of our undergraduates are first-gen students, the first in their family to attend college, and 25 percent come from low-income backgrounds. There is overlap between these cohorts, with about 12 percent of students identifying as both first-gen and low-income. It’s a sizable population with unique needs, and they deserve our support.”

“MIT provides exceptional financial aid, meeting 100 percent of students’ financial need, and our admissions process is need-blind,” says Tungkitkancharoen. However, she emphasizes that admission alone is insufficient. “You need to provide resources to help us navigate through the institution.”

FLI students often face challenges that are unfamiliar or less comfortable to them compared to their peers. Asal Vaghefzadeh, a junior and member of the FLI Advisory Board, points out that developing financial literacy and acquiring career-related skills can be particularly difficult. “Many FLI students don’t have as much experience networking as other students, nor the same networking resources, like family members or family friends,” she explains.

In 2021, two reports from the Institute set in motion a concentrated effort to enhance the FLI experience. Task Force 2021 called for the establishment of a more robust undergraduate advising structure, where students are supported by a team of professional advisors 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 referred to as the ‘hidden curriculum’ of success needs to be uncovered and accessible to every student, regardless of their starting point.”

Simultaneously, the First Generation/Low Income Working Group (FGLIWG) identified several gaps in support for FLI undergraduate students, including the need for more career advising, community-building opportunities, and assistance in navigating MIT’s complex array of resources.

Promising growth prospects

Equipped with the findings from these reports and ongoing feedback from stakeholders, the FLI Program is positioned for further growth. Sade Abraham, associate dean of advising and student belonging, explains, “We are currently embarking on a comprehensive listening tour and strategic review to ensure that our actions are guided by a profound understanding of the needs and aspirations of FLI students in our four key areas, which we call our ‘pillars’ of FLI: community, academics, professional development, and advocacy.”

The UAC has plans to hire additional full-time staff members for the FLI Program in the coming years. In the meantime, Abraham and her colleague Alex Hoyt, senior staff associate for advising and programming, are actively promoting resources and disseminating information through a weekly FLI newsletter. They are also organizing an extensive range of activities, including a monthly faculty lunch series, community dinners, wellness events, study breaks, outings, and academic and professional development opportunities. FLI student leaders play an integral role in the planning process and also dedicate time to innovative projects and ideas. For instance, Vaghefzadeh is leading an effort to document the FLI experience at MIT in order to increase visibility. “The goal is to create a concise and well-documented history that people can view and engage with,” she explains. Ultimately, she envisions presenting this information through a timeline and mini-exhibition outside Hayden Library.

One area of growth for the program involves the active involvement of more faculty members who also identify as FLI. Ed Bertschinger, a physics professor, has been engaged in FLI programming since 2013. As a former FLI student himself, he chooses to focus not on what these students lack, but rather on what they possess, such as “cultural capital,” as he describes it. “Community cultural wealth, including family relationships and traditions, is important for all students, yet it is often overlooked in academic settings. FLI students have incredible diversity culturally and demographically. By fostering a supportive community, MIT helps each member achieve their full potential.”

Hoyt recognizes the significant downstream impact of this potential. “FLI students are often deeply invested not only in their personal journey but also in making a broader impact as educational pioneers within their families and communities. They’re passionate about leaving MIT as a better institution for future FLI community members, putting effort into projects that will enhance the MIT experience for future FLI students,” he concludes.