This story was originally printed in the Undergraduate Financial Aid Development publication, The Penn Priority, Issue 18
Penn juniors Daniel Gonzalez, C’20, and Lisa He-Wu, Nu’20, know all too well the challenges that can come with being a first-generation college student. Daniel, who lives with his parents and younger sister in Cleveland, initially didn’t think college was for him. His nomadic childhood made focusing on schoolwork difficult. But his low economic background, he says, made things even harder, and he came to realize that higher education was the path to a better life.
Shortly after arriving on campus, Daniel learned about Penn First, a student organization founded in 2015 to support this rapidly growing community. “They were the first people to help me understand: okay, you’re first-gen,” he says. “What does that mean? This is what it looks like at a school like Penn.” A Health and Societies major, Daniel has since served as a mentorship chair for Penn First and often finds himself passing on advice that other students once gave him. “Upperclassmen who were first-generation helped me get adjusted, and that gave me the ability to say, okay, I can give back and be a resource for other students, because I have the same identity and share some of the same experiences.”
Lisa is an only child whose parents made every effort to set her on the path to a college education. They emigrated to Latin America from rural China before she was born and moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia six years ago. “That’s when I began to hear more about colleges,” she explains. “One of my friends was involved with a program at Penn called ASPIRE, through the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH). At that time, I didn’t really know what Penn had to offer. I learned about Penn by meeting Penn students who were involved with community service.”
Prior to arriving on campus, Lisa participated in the PennCAP (Penn College Achievement Program) Pre-Freshman Program, intended specifically to help first-generation and/or low-income students transition to college. PennCAP is one of the University programs that gave rise to Penn First Plus, Penn’s commitment to establish a thoughtful support system for such students. Fortunately, Lisa learned about Penn First early on and connected with other student hubs, like PAACH and La Casa Latina. “Being involved helped build my confidence and showed me there are people here who are just like me,” she says. Friends in Penn First also pointed Lisa in the direction of tutoring services at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center, where she is now a member of the student board.
As the largest university with grant-based financial aid, Penn sets and maintains a gold standard for providing access to a world-class education. While Penn’s generous financial aid packages and Named Scholarships significantly assist with tuition, there are other college expenses — such as laptops and the cost of traveling home — that provide an additional challenge for highly aided students like Daniel and Lisa. For students whose families are unable to pitch in, costs like this can initially seem staggering. Penn recognizes that impactful support to students must go beyond traditional financial aid, and as a part of Penn First Plus, students will receive significant assistance with incidental college costs.
Penn has long been a leader in increasing access to higher education, and thanks to Penn First Plus, the effort won’t end there. This latest program ensures that once doors are opened, students have what they need to walk through them and emerge from their college experience with broadened horizons, numerous career prospects, and the ability and desire to give back to their communities.