Helping First-Generation Students Fit in at Duke

A burgeoning network aids in navigating the opportunities and expectations of an elite school
Writer: 
October 12, 2015

Orientation Week is days away, but already skittish students are filing into the East Duke lecture hall, clutching their security blankets—backpacks, water bottles, spiral notebooks sticky from sweaty palms. Most of them met each other the day before, as they wandered the stuffy, unfamiliar corridors looking for their dorm rooms, or later that evening over dinner in the basement of Gilbert-Addoms.

Justin Clapp, director of access and outreach within the financial aid office, had welcomed the fifty-three students—participants in Duke’s two-day pre-orientation program for first-generation freshmen and their families—with words that, for many, echoed a secret concern: “You may have thought, ‘My family is not the Duke stereotype,’ ” he’d told the crowd. “But Duke isn’t the stereotype. Look around.”

Now Clapp stands at the foot of the tiered seats, his enthusiasm recharged, prodding the students to move in, clump together. He pushes up his chunky glasses, scanning the room for stragglers, a bemused smile on his face. Like his students, he’s a little rumpled in his khakis and button-down on this steamy morning, but his distinctive hair, a curly orange faux-hawk, is on point as ever.

The students introduce themselves, where they live—east L.A. to Mount Olive, North Carolina—“We’re known for our pickles,” says the student—and what brought them to Duke and the 1G program specifically. Most give sheepish, pro forma answers: to move in early, to get advice, to get away from home as fast as possible.

Clapp listens and jokes around, and when they’re through, he slaps his hands together and announces: “Now, I’m going to tell you why you’re here, because most of you didn’t really tell me the truth. And that’s okay.” The room goes still, silent, and Clapp tells it like it is: “Some of you wanted to go to Duke to make a lot of money so you can go home and help support your family. I know. You may be the greatest hope your family has ever had.…” He asks a rhetorical question: “How many people know your whole story? I mean, you can say something to them and it doesn’t shock them?”

A few students shift in their seats, look away.

“This might be the only time when you’re in a room with fifty people and they’re not going to judge you,” he says. “I’m big and bold and out there”—he lets loose a deep, guffaw that could fill a stage—“and even I make decisions about when and where to be my whole self. So I know.”

For Clapp’s audience—all first-generation college students—stepping onto Duke’s cloistered grounds isn’t so much a rite of passage as a leap of faith. They will be the first in their families to earn a four-year college degree, and with it the hope of broader choices, a different career trajectory. Roughly 10 percent of Duke’s undergraduate population is first-generation, a diverse demographic that does not include international students. What they have in common, beyond the requisite intellectual prowess, is a certain uneasiness with the intangibles of the college experience: Navigating the opportunities and expectations of an elite school, its social codes and financial demands, can be particularly challenging for those who haven’t grown up surrounded by college-bound peers or college-educated families.

Such distinctions may be subtle, but the consequences of ignoring them are real, says Alison Rabil, director of financial aid and assistant vice provost. Students who can’t find solid footing at Duke may underachieve, and their confidence and ambitions may start to flicker and dim.

“Let’s be clear,” says Rabil. “These students aren’t academically unprepared.” No student accepted to Duke in recent years could be. “They come here on a mission. But all of the sudden what they could handle with ease in their high school is a struggle, because the culture and expectations here are so wildly different.”

While everyone stumbles at some point in college, Rabil says she’s watched her students fall behind in ways that can be prevented: For some, a fear of “bothering their professors” holds them back. Extra fees have prevented some from enrolling in essential courses. Networking, for many, is anathema. Accustomed to being at the top of their class, they don’t know when to ask for help, or who to turn to. “You’re getting this significant scholarship and this great education,” she says. “You don’t feel like you have the right to ask for more, to ask what else is out there. And I have to say, ‘No, no, no! This is part of what it means to be at Duke.’ It’s just one of those privileges, and I guess being privileged is not where you’re coming from, so it feels false.”

For the better part of a decade, Rabil and a handful of administrators have worked steadily—and often invisibly—to build pockets of support for these students by developing social and academic resources for them and by engaging sympathetic faculty members. Many of these professors and administrators were first-generation themselves, and they recognize in these students their own frustrations and uncertainties as undergraduates. Students have started to embrace the “first-gen” label as a way to connect with each other and talk about issues of class and status on campus. Admissions statistics, strategic plans, even Power-Point presentations to the board of trustees now mention Duke’s first-generation students.

All top-tier universities are courting high-achieving first-gen students—there’s now an inter-Ivy first-generation network. But twenty-six years ago, when Stephen Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, arrived at Duke to teach biology, socioeconomic diversity was not the priority it is today. “We’ll all just become elite finishing schools for the rich and famous if we don’t bring in talent from wherever it is and support it,” he warns. “We become irrelevant to the future if we don’t.”

Providing that support is Clapp’s job. He understands these students’ fears and concerns because he’s first-generation, too. “I was this smart kid from this rural black family,” he says. “Growing up my mom always said, ‘I can’t wait to say, My son, the doctor from Harvard!’ She cried when I didn’t get into Harvard.”

As the former assistant director in the Office of Financial Aid, Clapp has developed a special rapport with his 400 or so first-generation and high-financial-need students. By offering increasingly competitive financial-aid packages, the university is able to cast a wider net and draw in top students who otherwise might be scared off by sticker shock. Despite the daunting price tag, Duke is actually the seventh most affordable private university in the country, according to a recent report by ProPublica that analyzed the real cost to low-income students. While the first-generation students in this pool arrive with the same test scores, the same grade point averages, and they graduate at the same rate as their well-heeled peers, as a group they have certain vulnerabilities.

One way to safeguard against those is to bring their experiences out in the open. “Our students need to hear that we know they’re being different things in different moments,” Clapp says. “They feel more authentic if they don’t feel like they’re hiding. Sometimes, when your story is found out for you, it alleviates a lot of pressure.”

Which is why in 2012 Clapp and his boss, Rabil, along with other interested administrators, launched the free pre-orientation program with a modest two-year grant. It’s a chance for students—the group hovers around fifty, about half the number Clapp invites each year—to build camaraderie before the floodgates open to all freshmen. The packed schedule covers everything from how to manage financial-aid packages and how to talk to professors to how to study abroad. Students are introduced to the Academic Resource Center, the Career Center, and counseling services. Peer advisers give pro tips: how to get free books, score free food, manage work-study, and cope with family expectations. The parents, doting grandmas, favorite aunts who want to stay are given their own special orientation to Duke, with similar events and talks.

Basically, says Rabil, “we hit them with everything before they’re hit with everything else.”

The financial aid office has become the hub for these students because, with few exceptions, first-generation students get some form of financial aid. Rabil and Clapp may only know these students and their family situations on paper; programming is a way to connect to the person.

“I need students to know we’re nice and that we don’t breathe fire or have horns or whatever,” says Rabil, her Long Island vowels ending in a squeaky laugh. No one meeting her could miss her warmth, her crackling energy, but she’s no pushover. She refers to students as her “kids,” and at least one calls her his “Duke mom,” but she’s a straight shooter. “I like order,” she says. “I like it when things add up.”

And often, things don’t add up for her first-gen kids: When she arrived at Duke seven years ago, she found they studied abroad at half the rate of their peers. They weren’t taking, or were dropping, classes that required extra fees. Some had accumulated unmanageable debts on their flex accounts. They weren’t getting needed medical care because of co-pays and prescription costs. “They can be a quiet crowd,” she says. “When they fly under the radar, that’s when you can get a problem.”

One of her students, senior David Morris, an unflappable political science major who gives campus tours to visiting VIPs, had developed a toothache from untreated cavities. Rabil, his adviser, found out he wouldn’t go back to the dentist because he couldn’t afford to have them filled, and not only did she get the bill covered, she offered to go with him. They’re Facebook friends now.

“She’s my person,” Morris shrugs, as though he still can’t believe his good fortune. The summer before his freshman year, he attended Clapp’s first pre-orientation, and he has volunteered with the program ever since. “That’s one reason I come back every year,” he says, “to make sure the freshmen know Alison. To pay it forward, you know?”

When KellyNoel Waldorf ’14 arrived at Duke in 2010, the pre-orientation program was not even a pipedream, and yet its origins were stealthily taking shape around her. At home in Murphy, North Carolina, her mother had been laid off from a factory job, and her father, a cabinet-maker, was considering a return to commercial fishing in New Jersey because the pay was better, even if the work was notoriously dangerous. Waldorf had spent the summer working the register at a McDonald’s and was more than ready to lose her family worries to Shakespeare and linguistics classes.

The last thing she wanted to do was dwell on what made her feel a little different at Duke. But then the e-mails came. “At first I didn’t know what it was—‘Come to a 1G dinner!’—and then I realized, oh, I get why they’re e-mailing me, but why is that relevant?” she says, brushing away a wisp of brown hair from her glasses, amused and embarrassed for her younger self. “I guess there was some fear there. I didn’t want to out myself as poor.”

On a campus where 47 percent of students can afford to pay $60,000 per year, being low-income—and the first in your family to go to college—is not something to shout from the chapel tower. Her reaction was not unexpected, says psychologist Gary Glass, associate director for outreach and developmental programming at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), who along with Donna Hall, director of the Academic Resource Center (ARC), had started e-mailing friendly invitations to first-generation students in 2010. It was the first outreach of its kind at Duke.

But it was a rocky start.

A trial meeting a year earlier, advertised on fliers posted around campus, drew about as many students (six) as eager, well-meaning speakers. The memory of them all perched on chintz couches in the East Duke Parlors, painted ladies peering down on them from gilded-frames, makes Hall blush. “Not the best choice,” she says, shaking her blonde bob. “What were we thinking?”

“We got better at it,” says Glass.

Hall nods. She’s been at Duke for twenty years, and in that time she’s watched the university make progress bringing in students with backgrounds like her own. “I didn’t know if there were any students like me at Williams College,” she says. “I never felt like I quite fit in, and I was very reluctant. I don’t know that I ever told anybody I was first”— she stops and looks at Glass—“until the East Parlor meeting. That was my coming out.”

Since then she’s thought about why she didn’t tell her Duke colleagues that fact before then. “We slot people into categories to make sense of them, to make sense of why they do what they do,” she says. “I felt that if I revealed I’m first-generation, my colleagues might say that my impulses and judgments, my desire to do certain things were biased and emotional, and that might discount my perspective and contribution.”

Glass, first generation from a military family, went to high school in the Panama Canal Zone. New to Duke, he was often asked where he did his undergraduate work. “I’d say, ‘Just down the road at UNC-Greensboro,’ and their response was, ‘Oh, you went to a state school?’ ” He pauses, his eyebrows ticking up. “At first I thought there must be some confusion; since I’d gone to school in Panama maybe the person was expressing surprise that I went to a continental U.S. school.” He laughs. Of course, that wasn’t it at all.

As older and wiser versions of the students they hoped to recruit, Glass and Hall knew they needed to let the network grow organically to make it stick. “When you’re talking about working-class backgrounds, grassroots is going to be far more trustworthy than any administratively led institutional program,” says Glass. “But we were trying to figure out how to get students to receive our support and resources, so we couched it as a way to be helpful to other students.”

That approach tapped into the students’ natural affinity for helping those who have traveled a similar path to Duke. The venue changed, too: They moved to a nondescript conference room with a table long enough for twenty-five kids to share the take-out Hall and Glass took turns bringing in.

By the end of 2010, a group of 1G students started to form.

They opened up about roommates and family pressures. They applied their class readings and newly encountered theories to what they were going through. Upperclassmen advised freshmen. Together they groused, they strategized—how to avoid spending money without other people noticing—and they laughed at the unheard-of levels of wealth encountered on campus. Having had enough of the obligatory (and unaffordable) celebration dinners for friends, one student famously piped up, “And I can’t go to the Cheesecake Factory every time someone has a damn birthday!”

Something had been uncorked.

For the next three years Hall and Glass’ network would gather for dinner three times each semester about two-dozen students from the 250-student 1G listserv. One of those students was Sonam Aidasani ’14, whose parents didn’t finish high school. They own a jewelry store on St. Thomas, where she went to a college-prep high school that didn’t have a college counselor. After applying to twenty-one schools—selected from the U.S. News & World Report rankings—she found that Duke offered her the best financial-aid package.

YouTube guided her through the intimidating forms. Then she found a better resource: Rabil spoke at one of the first dinners Aidasani attended. “I remember her telling us, if you ever have money issues or questions, call me.”

Family was a big topic, too. Finding friends who understood her parents’ often-limited appreciation of her academic interests was a relief for Aidasani: “What do you do, who do you turn to, when you have something stressful to talk about and you can’t talk to your parents? They don’t understand why you’re studying sociology anyway, and not premed.”

As much as Duke is a leap up the social strata, it’s a profound step away, too—from family history and a community that can seem like a distant land while scuttling up the steps of the Allen Building. Many in the network grapple with this widening disconnect. Glass says one student, who wanted to major in linguistics, told the group about the hassle he was getting from home: “My mom said, ‘I didn’t send you to college to study stupid things.’ ”

Everyone laughed. They’d heard a version of that, too.

More often, when students shared family stories, quiet smiles of recognition would ripple through the room. One woman told the story of how she found out she got into Duke. Her extended family was gathered around her when she read the acceptance letter. Through the cheers she heard her uncle say to himself in a whisper, “A Gonzales is going to Duke….”

“That’s one of the powerful things,” Glass says, a hand at his chest. “We talk about first-generation students, but really there are families coming to college for the first time.”

In her last year at Duke, Waldorf couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that her experience of being low-income and first-generation on campus was mostly invisible. In part, she’d made it that way. (After all, she hadn’t joined the 1G network.) But she wondered why money is “such a taboo at Duke,” she says. “No one really talks about it.”

But it’s always there.

Throughout her years at Duke, Donna Hall has noticed this, too. “Universities and higher education in general have been talking about race and gender and sexuality for a long time, but we haven’t been talking about class issues,” she says. “Our country is uncomfortable talking about class. We’re built on trying to break down class, and in doing that we’ve stopped talking about it as an issue.”

With income inequality in the headlines, perhaps that will change. “There may be a kind of permission now that these issues are part of the national identity and conversation,” says Hall.

For Waldorf, the best coping mechanism was to write about it. After much trepidation and reassurances from friends, she sat down at her computer and wrote a short article about being poor at Duke for an editor friend at The Chronicle.

“At first I put down the experiences that were really challenging, but then I started to think about the positive qualities that come from this,” she says. The story, “I Came to Duke With an Empty Wallet,” appeared online and in print November 11, 2013, and quickly went viral, appearing on The Huffington Post later that week. “I woke up to a stream of e-mails and Facebook messages,” she says. Ron Lieber, the finance columnist for The New York Times, even e-mailed to say her story was relevant to a book he was writing, and he directed her to a conversation he was having on Facebook about it. “People coming up to me, even professors—it was really alarming! But so, so nice.”

Three years before, Glass and Hall had tried to bring students like Waldorf together to create this type of support, this community. A sense of belonging is essential to academic achievement, says Glass, pointing to research from the Duke Social Relationship Project study. “The single biggest predictor of whether a student has a sense of belonging on campus is academic engagement, which translates into a connection with a faculty member, administrator, or group,” he says.

Aidasani developed four first-gen mentors at Duke by her junior year. Hall and Glass, too, found a wider network of first-gen colleagues than they could have imagined. At a meeting of twelve faculty members and administrators, who were gathered to discuss work on a study of student resiliency, Hall and Glass asked how many were first-generation. “All around this long conference table,” says Hall, “every hand went up but one.”

Waldorf is long-cured of her first-gen reluctance. Now in her second and final year working for the College Advising Corps (CAC) at Duke, she counsels students at a rural high school, nudging them toward schools that fit their strengths, encouraging them to branch out, assuring them they can do it. Many are first-generation, and when they say, “You went to Duke? Your family must be rich,” she laughs and tells them her story. Next fall she plans to start a graduate program in linguistics, but in the meantime network kismet continues to follow her: Aidasani is her roommate and fellow CAC counselor.

“I would do this for a third year if they’d let us,” says Aidasani. “This is just the kind of work I want to do—forging close relationships with students, but for a nonprofit.”

These days Morris, the senior political science major, is less certain about his future. He’s sitting at a table beneath a parched-looking tree rooted in the Bryan Center plaza; the gray sky is starting to spit rain, but he’s unbothered. His mind is elsewhere. The pre-orientation is over, and now he can get back to thinking about the ten short months ahead. He knows he can’t take on $120,000 in debt for law school. An unpaid internship is, he says, “not even on my radar.”

“It’s just like when I was applying to college, figuring it out all over again,” he says, “not knowing if I’m doing it right.”

Morris is finding that doors, once again, seem closed to him. “You hear these things,” he says, hesitating. “A guy says, ‘My dad’s buddy is at this big firm,’ or ‘I’ve got a job at this or that place if I want it.’ These circles are way, way over your head.”

He’s interned at great firms, too—one in Washington this past summer. But there are no sure bets in his world. “I don’t know what would make a difference—funneling opportunities down, or having a pipeline for students to access those circles. It’s just so many layers above where I am.” He pauses, weary of the jargon, the abstractions, and lets the beeps and thuds of a nearby bulldozer fill the silence.

He knows what’s really bothering him. “I don’t have anything to fall back on,” he says, finally. With Rabil and Clapp an e-mail away, professors to please and friends to see, there was no room for the old worries to creep in, until now. A sliver of daylight is beginning to open between his Duke life and his future. “I’m out there by myself again. It’s hard when people don’t get it, and it’s frustrating.” He takes a gulp from his water bottle. Checks the time. There’s only one thing to do, really. So he just says it: “I have to fall back on myself.”

But that’s not entirely true anymore and hasn’t been since he arrived on campus. His life has changed already. Believing it may take a little more time.

  • Louise Flynn is the associate editor at Duke Magazine.