‘Almost hidden diversity’: Emerson’s first-generation students share their stories

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Some of Emerson’s first-get students have bonded over shared experiences. From left to right: Priscilla Beltran, Maria Vu, Ashley Blanco, Kelly Moreno and Carolina Alcantara. Courtesy / Ashley Blanco

By Payton Cavanaugh and Adri Pray

First-generation students, without guidance from older family members or friends, and limited access to resources, face a far more challenging acclimation to college life than most.

Roughly 15 percent of each class is made up of first-generation students, Director of Student Success Christopher Grant told Emerson Today. Interim President Bill Gilligan’s 2021 State of the College address attributes around 5,981 undergraduates and graduate students to this year’s class—approximately 900 of which are first-generation.

Many of these students found tuition payments and assistance, financial aid, and scholarships incredibly daunting and overwhelming without resources. First-generation students told The Beacon they struggle to navigate the complex documentation required to attend college even with their families.

The first in her family to attend college, Karen Torento came to Emerson this year as a visual media arts major, and was initially concerned with financing college as a first-generation student from Massachusetts.

“I’m a first-gen student and I don’t have anybody to look up to and ask for advice or what to do because none of my parents or my siblings went,” Torento said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m figuring it out on my own and just working through it all independently.”

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Of the class of 2025, 14 percent are the first in their family to attend college, according to data reported in the State of the College. This means roughly 148 of the 1,061 students in Emerson’s class of 2025 are first-generation college students. 

So far, Torento’s college experience hasn’t been what she expected. 

“I had this very concrete, high expectation of what college was going to be,” Torento said. “Now that I’m here, it’s been the exact opposite. Because my expectations haven’t been met, it’s been hard to go through it.”

There is a significant wealth gap between families headed by college graduates and those without a degree, according to a 2019 analysis by Pew Research Center. Graduates have more than twice the median wealth of households headed by individuals without a degree, with the average difference being around $71,400. 

The study also found that there is a wealth gap between the families of first-generation college students and continuing generation college students—students who were not the first to attend college in their families.

Approximately 80 percent of current Emerson students receive financial assistance in the form of scholarships and grants, low-interest loans, and part-time employment, according to Emerson College’s financial aid office’s Facts & Figures. Conversely, these statistics indicate that only approximately 20 percent of the student body is able to afford tuition and room and board at face value. 

As head of the college’s First-Generation Low-Income Program, Grant said his role includes helping first-generation students find the resources they need to adjust to college—essentially, starting a new life.

“With first-gen and low income, there’s almost hidden diversity,” he said. “It’s diversity that you don’t see, and you can’t see, and I think that’s part of the reason why we created the program, was just to be able to have a safe space for students.”

Grant works closely with Ashley Blanco, a senior business of creative enterprises major who runs a student organization, FirstGenE-N, designed to make Emerson’s first-generation students feel more comfortable.

“My priority and main goal is to make sure every first-gen student has the resources they need and the support,” Blanco said in an interview with The Beacon. “I’ve made some of my long-term friendships through the organization based on [my own] similar experiences.”

After a year of restrictions on group outings, Blanco said she hoped that FirstGenE-N could finally return to in-person events to bond first-generation students.

“This year our goal is to bring some of those fun events back,” Blanco said. “That way we have access to stress relieving, nice experiences—something that we can do together as a group which is very important.”

Blanco said her experience as a first-generation student shaped her four years at Emerson.

“I’m excited to see the next generation of first-gens once I leave Emerson and how they’re going to transform everything,” she said. “I admire the resiliency and the strength that a lot of first-gens bring to campus.”

Disneiruby Parra, a junior business of creative enterprises major, joined FirstGenE-N her first year at the college.

“I was very lucky to be able to find a community of first-gen students here at Emerson,” Parra said. “It started off rough but I did find out about the first-gen group here. It was then that I actually made my first friends here.”

Parra, who is from California, said she experienced difficulties balancing her identities as the oldest sibling of a West Coast family and first-generation student at an East Coast institution.

“I moved all the way across the country to come here…and I’m still responsible for things at home,” she said. “The hardest part is trying to navigate that space between I’m a college student but also I still have to be a family member that lives far away.”

At Emerson, though, Parra sought out the community she felt could help her overcome the challenge of balancing identities. She urged all first-generation students to check out FirstGenE-N.

“Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself if you don’t understand something, always ask for that information even if you think it’s dumb,” Parra said.

Blanco hopes to empower incoming first-generation students with her own experiences. Embracing her identity as a first-generation student shaped her as a person, which is something she feels all of those students should have.

“There’s a nugget there of wisdom and strength and courage that makes us who we are, and without those challenges, we wouldn’t be the people that we are.”