College Access and Success Educational Equity

Insights on First-Gen Student Success

by Amanda Medress

Headshot of E Abrams

An interview with Eric Abrams, Chief Inclusion Officer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and featured speaker at the upcoming CAP College Success Institute

*Opinions expressed in this interview belong to Eric Abrams and do not reflect the view of Stanford University or Stanford Graduate School of Education 

What does your role as the Chief Inclusion Officer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education look like?

One of the great things about the role is it changes a lot. One minute, I might be speaking to a student about concerns around an issue of equity and inclusion; for example, all-gender restrooms. An hour later, I may be talking to a faculty candidate who is considering Stanford as their next place of employment. After that, I may be talking to a colleague who feels unsettled about something that happened, but they don’t know if it rises to the level of discrimination.

Is your role mostly about creating inclusion efforts on campus, or is it also about training the next generation of educators to teach with an equity and inclusion lens?

It’s both. We do a ton of workshops to provide our faculty, staff, and students perspective on these issues. Beyond that, I’m hoping I can use my role to change the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion on campuses, not just at Stanford but across the country. Two things that are often missing from the conversation are grace and forgiveness. Too many times on university campuses, somebody does something wrong—they say something offensive or make a joke and don’t realize it offends someone—and rather than someone confronting them at that moment and saying, “hey that really bothers me, let me tell you why,” that person holds it in. I want to create an environment where when somebody makes a mistake, we can have a conversation that allows the person to grow and not feel shamed—to say “wow, I didn’t realize that, thank you for telling me”—and then both parties move on.

What does Stanford do differently to support and include first-generation and low-income students?

It’s really on a couple of levels. The first is financial. I can speak from my own experience. While I was not a first-generation student—both of my parents went to college—I was very low-income. My first year at Stanford cost more than my mother made during my senior year of high school—and my father was out of the picture at that point. And yet, I was able to attend Stanford and graduate in four years without taking out any student loans. The university still does a good job—not a perfect job—of providing enough financial aid for students of high need.

My colleague Dereca Blackmon, who is a nationally recognized expert on these issues, runs Stanford’s Diversity and Inclusion office, which supports all different kinds of diversity and looks very closely at students who are first-gen.

At the Stanford Graduate School of Education, we have a new student group called “Resilient 1stGen.” These are grad students who are not only the first students in their families to go to college, but they’ve committed to becoming teachers for the next few years of their lives. I think that shows that Stanford not only attracts first-generation students, but the University also encourages them to make a difference in their communities according to their personal visions.

What are the biggest institutional barriers for providing this kind of support for first-generation and low-income students?

Unfortunately, many still exist, at our institution and others. We are in the fortunate position of having a university president who is first-gen and our provost, while she is not first-generation, is also deeply concerned with these issues. We have the advantage of having senior leadership who care about these issues.

Let’s face it, if you come from a family without a lot of money, and you find yourself at someplace like Stanford, it can feel weird, because there’s a lot of money all over the place. When I was a frosh at Stanford, I saved all summer from my first job to buy a bike and plane ticket while my roommate drove a Porsche. I remember being in the bookstore freshman year with a friend, buying books for a required class. One of the books was called The Epic of Gilgamesh. I said to my friend, “what the heck is this?” He said, “I know, we read this in ninth grade!” There was stuff my peers had been exposed to, because of the economic privilege of their secondary school, that I had never heard of.

It’s difficult to be a university that has many children of near billionaires, but what’s even harder is being poor forever. Universities are working to make the environment as comfortable as possible for an incredibly wide variety of students. That’s why I have “inclusion” in my title—I want everyone to have a comfortable home here. Having said that, for many students from many backgrounds, elite universities can feel strange. But just because it feels strange doesn’t mean it’s bad.

When you look at the first-generation students at Stanford who succeed, what do they have in common?

When I speak at the CAP College Success Institute in May, most of my talk will be about this. There’s some interesting research that shows students who self-define their college experiences as successful (five or ten years out) have three things in common: first, they fell in love with something inside the classroom (something intellectual), second, they fell in love with something outside of the classroom (an extracurricular activity, a fraternity or sorority, a sports team, or a group of buddies), and third, they had a grownup somewhere they could trust. Usually, that was someone on campus, but not necessarily a professor, maybe a staff member. The research says if students—particularly low-income and first-gen students—lack one of those things, they are much less likely to succeed. But if they can find those three things, they’re going to be fine.

What unique challenges do first-generation graduate students face (as compared to first-generation undergraduate students)?

It certainly varies depending on what they study, but a challenge many first-generation graduate students face is talking to family and friends back home. For someone who’s going to medical or law school, the family gets it. But if you want to get your Ph.D. in botany, because you’ve really fallen in love with a particular grass that’s pollinated by a particular wasp and you want to figure that out…. how do you talk to your family about that? It’s hard for students who aren’t in direct professional schools where families understand they’re going to make a good salary.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Long story short: there are many paths to enlightenment. One thing that the educational system sets people up to believe is that if you didn’t get straight A’s and you didn’t go to an elite university right out of high school, graduate school is out of reach. That’s not the case. One of the wonderful things about being in California is the community college system, which is set up to help students transfer to world-class research institutions to finish their undergraduate degrees, and from there, students can choose to go on to graduate degrees. Graduate school is about being passionate about answering a question and trying to figure something out, and there are many paths to get there.

Want to hear Eric speak in person? Register for the CAP College Success Institute, May 20-21st in the San Francisco Bay Area.