FLI program continues to evolve to better support students

Climbing up Magill Walk on his first day of college, Ramiro Hernandez ’23 proudly wore a gray t-shirt printed with a flying phoenix and the word “Soar!” Hernandez said he felt empowered as he not only became a part of the Swarthmore community as a whole but also, more specifically, the First-Generation Low-Income community. 

“I would see other students wearing [the FLI shirt] and was like ‘okay there are other people that are also like me. I’m not the only one’,” Hernandez said. “So, it felt nice to be able to recognize other students that are also in my situation here, at least financially.”

Dean of First-Year Students, Karen Henry ’87, said that the social climate has changed dramatically since her time as a low-income student at Swarthmore. When she was at Swarthmore, low-income students knew each other but, Henry said they didn’t outwardly identify in that way.

“FLI has become much more of an identity people embrace,” Henry said.

First-generation or low-income students have long been on campus and a commitment of the college; however, Henry explained that different options available to support students have changed over the years and will continue to evolve to better serve the needs of the FLI community. 

Helen Tumolo ’22, a self-identified FLI student, believes that while there are more FLI resources it is sometimes hard to receive adequate funding for programs and support should be expanded so that it is easier to get funding. 

Last year, FLI gave students $30 to spend on Amazon to help with expenses. Tumolo liked the program but said that it was difficult for FLI interns to secure funding.

“That was really nice. They had to fight really hard with SBC to get that money,” said Tumolo.

Students also feel that knowing who and when to ask for help can be hard on this campus. Tumolo said that asking for support from administrators has been a challenge for her.

“There is still a lot of unclarity on how much they can help you and with what, especially [regarding] people who come from a background like me where I’ve been raised not to ask for help,” Tumolo said. “It took a long time to unlearn all of that coming to school.”

Like the Amazon program this spring, FLI staff and interns continue to come up with different program ideas and initiatives and funding, as well as trying to provide better support and resources for students.

To support other new FLI initiatives, “Building Inclusive Communities” became a cornerstone of the Changing Lives, Changing the World fundraising campaign. This additional funding will supplement the Richard Rubin Scholar Mentoring Program and the Emergency Fund, which will be expanded to help more students with externships and other impactful experiences that are not considered emergencies. Additionally, FLI students are now able to apply to the SGO for micro-grants to sponsor small meals and community-building events. 

Historically, FLI students received support from the Dean’s Office or student centers, namely the Black Cultural Center and the Intercultural Center. Since Dean Henry rejoined the Swarthmore Community 26 years ago to work in the Dean’s Office, she has been championing FLI students and connecting them with resources on campus, be it academic, professional, or personal. 

Swarthmore, according to Henry, has improved upon this commitment to FLI students. Ten years ago, the First in Family program was created by Henry and Pattie Kim-Keiffer of Career Services to streamline resources to low-income, first-generation students. The program was renamed FLI in 2018-2019 Academic Year, inspired by an 1vyG conference (1vyG is the largest conference for FLI students in the world) in February 2018 and in an effort to be more inclusive to low-income students. Nakia Waters was hired as FLI’s first Program Coordinator the year prior and has developed more events directed to supporting the FLI Community such as meals and activities over Fall and Spring breaks and monthly Mental Wellness Lunches. 

Ariana Azumatan Aceituno ’22, who identifies as both first-generation and low-income and is working alongside FLI interns this year as Diversity Peer Advisory, feels that FLI interns are moving the program in the right direction. She especially appreciates the FLI Resource Guide which was compiled by FLI interns earlier this fall and details various services available for FLI students around campus.

“The resource guide is really good this year,” Azumatan Aceituno said. “It is really nice and would have been nice last year because even though I knew there were resources available, it wasn’t always easy to figure out which ones I was supposed to use and when.”

Azumatan Aceituno would like to see the Swarthmore administration put more of an emphasis on helping FLI students with their mental health and create more resources specifically for FLI students. While Azumatan Aceituno commends the addition of FLI sponsored Wellness Lunches, she hopes more support is put into C.A.P.S.

“I wish [C.A.P.S] would be more readily available and there was more of a budget dedicated towards FLI students and help them make sure they get the mental health help that they need. Sometimes it can be really difficult, especially if you’re not able to look for a kind of counseling and therapy outside of school, outside of C.A.P.S. because of financial reasons. I’d love an expanded presence of C.A.P.S.,” said Azumatan Aceituno.

The FLI office has heard student concerns and is trying to broaden the scope of their program. The office has hired six FLI interns and two Student Academic Mentor liaisons to provide feedback and help organize these new endeavors. FLI Intern Cindy Li ’20 has been with FLI since the start of these new changes.

“Watching the program grow in my time at Swarthmore has been amazing, and I am very happy to have been a part of it,” Li said. “Over the past few years, we’ve learned of the demand for different resources and events and have been able to calibrate to better meet these needs. I hope that we continue to learn in this way and that we can hear from fellow FLI students how we can better serve them.”

Some FLI students still see room for growth to provide better resources to FLI students. Although most textbooks are available on course reserves, some textbooks, especially language textbooks, must be bought new. Tumolo faced this difficulty at the beginning of this semester when she realized her Spanish textbook would cost 200 dollars.

“I started crying at Bamboo [Bistro] with my friends because my Spanish textbook was going to cost [200] dollars and I was like I didn’t know what to do because I don’t know how to scan all this and I need to have a physical copy. You had to buy it to access the online stuff too so it wasn’t even just you can get it on reserve” Tumolo said.

Tumolo, said a friend of hers reached out and offered to buy her the textbook. Without that friend, however, Tumolo says she’s not sure how she would have been able to afford the textbook. 

While FLI provides support and resources for students, it can still be a struggle to attend school along incredibly wealthy peers. 

Although she has made many connections with FLI administrators and other FLI students, Azumatan Aceituno said she still grapples with her identity at Swarthmore.

“It is definitely difficult to be a first-gen, low-income student at such an elite school,” Azumatan Aceituno said. “Especially since I didn’t really realize walking into [Swarthmore] that so many of the people around me were going to be so much wealthier than I was, and it was kind of a culture shock. I wasn’t really aware. I never really thought about how I was low income until I got here, just because I was always surrounded by other people like me, and therefore I was never like the ‘other’ until I got here. So it’s been a difficult challenge that I’ve kind of learned to both accept and become aware of.”

Tumolo said she too felt overwhelmed by the affluent culture she found at Swarthmore.

“I think the most shocking thing about this school for me was class differences, where I never really knew people whose parents had PhDs. and then meeting these professionals who do feel really far removed from the experience of ordinary people.” 

Coming from a low-income background, Tumolo described feeling left out as peers frequently went to Philly on the weekends or flew to vacations over breaks.

“People expect things of you and just don’t understand, like I don’t want to spend that money,” Tumolo said. 

 FLI wants to continue to build a strong community, and Waters believes on way to do that is by documenting FLI’s history. As the legacy of Swarthmore’s FLI program continues to build, Waters is working to document its progress. After being inspired by the 50th Anniversary of the Black Cultural Center, Waters decided this year to start a record of FLI activities. “National First-Generation Day,” “Spa Night,” “Ice-skating Over Thanksgiving Break,” are just a few of the several event fliers along with photos included in the newly established document.

“I’m trying to be intentional … making sure that people know that we were here and knowing about our history and knowing about the things … that FLI was doing on campus,” Waters said. 

However, even as Swarthmore grows their FLI program and resources, some FLI students want Swarthmore to improve their programming to be more inclusive and all-encompassing. Tumolo believes that the FLI program needs to continue towards better serving students.

“Yes, Swarthmore is one of the … colleges that really acknowledges the FLI population of their school, but it shouldn’t just stop there with a t-shirt and a button and a meeting at the beginning and end of the year, there needs to be a lot more,” said Tumolo.

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