Courtesy of Windsor Nguyen ’25


Reflections for National First-Generation Day

In honor of Nov. 8, the date set for the annual National First-Generation College Celebration, or National First-Gen Day, The Prospect solicited reflections from Princeton’s first-generation and/or low-income student (FLI) community. We did so with the purpose of highlighting the experiences of FLI students, and giving them space to share their journeys to, through, and beyond the University. Their backgrounds and perspectives are as diverse as they are powerful, and we at The Prospect hope that, in reading them, the larger Princeton community will be empowered to celebrate FLI voices on this day.

Auhjanae McGee
Head Prospect Editor

The following submissions have been edited
lightly for clarity and concision.

As a low-income high school student, I applied to Princeton partly out of a flickering hope that I could somehow gain admission to this bastion of intellectual prestige, but also mostly out of jest. Personally, I could not visualize myself attending Princeton of all places, a prestigious institution that historically boasts a significant number of students hailing from affluent, privileged backgrounds. Back in my tiny corner of rural Indiana, I can recall opening the admissions portal on that fateful December evening and welcoming the news of my acceptance with a sense of astonished incredulity, which later morphed into unease, and ultimately, guilt. I simply couldn't fathom why the admissions office considered my application worthy of admission, nor could I stifle the thought that there were other FLI students who equally deserved to receive this kind of life-changing news. For weeks, I relentlessly bit my nails, privately anticipating an email from the admissions office announcing that my acceptance was made in error.

Fortunately, that did not happen, but adapting to the Princeton environment has not been an easy task; the socioeconomic exclusivity among the student body can at times be starkly apparent. At the same time, I'm content to befriend many other FLI students, a task made easier in no small part due to programs like the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) for incoming first-years and the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP) that seek to establish a sense of community among students hailing from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. As Princeton continues to build new residential colleges, I can only hope that the University continues to increase the number of low-income and first-generation students admitted in the future. After all, most FLI students I know worked part-time jobs in high school and experienced adversities, the likes of which our more privileged peers have likely never even dreamt of contending with; these experiences have supplied us with an understanding of life and the importance of perseverance that many who grew up in high-income households tend to lack. There are many hardworking, intellectually curious FLI students who don't even apply to selective colleges in the first place due to how financially inaccessible and rarefied these schools can appear.

Princeton will invariably fall short of becoming a truly meritocratic institution until it strives to admit as many FLI students as it possibly can in order to truly represent the diverse spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds present within our nation and beyond. Although great progress has been made in expanding opportunities to FLI students, there's a long way to go before Princeton's reputation as a school for the moneyed and well-connected gives way to that of a down-to-earth, meritocratic institution that opens its doors to true social mobility and the minimization of inequities in who ultimately gets to attend institutions of higher education and benefit from the opportunities that they offer.

If anyone asks you something you don't understand, just smile and nod," my dad said in Vietnamese.

My parents restlessly paced back and forth behind me, trying their hardest to give me another piece of advice while we were waiting for the bus to arrive. It was my very first day of school in America.

"If you don't know where to go, just follow the crowd," my mom reiterated in Vietnamese as the bus came. "And always address your teacher with 'teacher'!" My parents gathered around me. It was funny — they had continually emphasized to me the importance of pursuing an education in America but were now finding it impossible to let me go. We embraced one final time before it was time for me to go. So I beat on, hands against the bus, looking back ceaselessly to my family.

Ever since I immigrated to the United States in 2008, I had always been aware of all the opportunities that were ahead of me, but also aware of all the pressure that came along with it. No one in my family had gone to college before, not even in Vietnam. I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and a once-in-a-generation opportunity for my family line. Becoming the first in my family to attend college wasn't just a personal goal for me. I knew that I also held the hopes and dreams of my family. And I embraced the challenge.

As I sit here now and reflect, I realized I would not be writing this without the undying support of my family. Though we didn't have much growing up, they gave it their all to make sure I would succeed. Before I left for Princeton a couple of months ago, I asked my mom what her dream was. I was determined to make it come true once I graduated.

She looked at me, confused. "My dream?" she asked.

I changed the wording. "Mom, what would a perfect day look like for you?"

After some thought, she laughed. "I would spend some time watching my movies." The Hong Kong ones dubbed in Vietnamese had always been her favorites. "Hopefully the nail salon is doing well on this perfect day, as well." I explained to my mom that she won't ever have to work again at this point in her life — not on my watch — especially not at a place whose chemicals constantly degraded her health. Still, she said she found pleasure in keeping busy. "Maybe a little shopping too," she continued. After some more thought, she conceded, "I don't know. I don't need much to be happy. As long as you continue to be successful and stay out of trouble, I'm happy."

I had to hold back tears. It hit me like a truck. I didn't really know how to feel. I realized my parents had spent their entire adult lives working to ensure my future. They worked so hard that they had almost, in a sense, given up their own lives, their own dreams, and their own aspirations, so that their children would have the future that they had always imagined for them.

As National First-Gen Day approaches, I'd like to take this moment to acknowledge my fellow first-generation peers, as well as each and every one of their support systems that made it possible for us to celebrate this day. I fully embrace my status as a first-generation college student, and I hold the title with immense pride. For me, it's a rapturous honor knowing that I have officially taken the first step towards pursuing the education and the American promise that my parents sacrificed their lives for. I couldn't be prouder to know that their efforts were not, and will never be, in vain.

I think the impostor syndrome is the worst part.

I was convinced that Princeton had made a mistake when I first got accepted. Of course I was excited and grateful, but I found myself falling into toxic habits of comparing my academic background to other admitted students. I knew I was playing a losing game. I was surrounded by brilliant students who had played instruments competitively since they were four years old, who had internships at major corporations, who had traveled the world, and who spearheaded amazing projects within their communities. I looked at my own resume and felt insufficient.

Then I remembered my circumstances. I remembered that I would come home everyday to babysit my younger siblings, cook dinner, and clean the house to give my tired, resilient single mother a break. I remembered that I self-studied for the SAT with Khan Academy (I couldn't afford a prep book) and watched my score increase through diligent dedication.

I realized that I was accepted to one of the most elite institutions in the country, and I didn't even have a laptop.

The more time that I have spent at this institution, the more I have come to accept my place here. Of course I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy, but I cannot blame myself for the circumstances I was born into, and neither should any other FLI student. I made the most of what I had, and I ended up here. And I have survived, even thrived, while being here. I talk to people and they respect me, look up to me even.

So maybe Princeton did not make a mistake. Even if they did, it's far too late for that now — I have less than two years left here. For National First-Gen Day, I just want everyone who identifies as FLI to know that they are not inadequate. And they do have what it takes to succeed at this institution.

Do not listen to the voice in your head that tells you otherwise. It only serves to take away your happiness, and after what you've gone through to get here, you deserve to be happy.

There is still a long way to go before a lot of FLI students can feel like they completely fit in here. While most interactions I've had on campus have been pleasant, some I've had with wealthier students show an attitude of either saviorism, ignorance, or inflated self-importance — and according to my FLI friends, they have experienced this as well. I often feel somewhat alone as someone with trauma and negative experiences most of campus has never had. I still have issues at home I always have to worry about, such as whether my mother will keep her housing next month or whether she will survive another month without proper medication. I will probably never feel fully comfortable here, but I came to improve my life and my family's life.

P.S. Princeton investing in fossil fuels hurts low-income communities.

I knew coming to Princeton that, as a first-generation student coming from a lower-middle-class family in the suburbs of Queens, I’d be on the lower end in terms of income. I’d heard so many stories from my high school friends about Ivy Leagues being dominated by rich, white families; I was told to “prepare myself” for classism.

Fortunately, I have not felt alienated at all by my peers. Though this might simply be luck in who I’ve been placed with, I don’t even feel like I stand out that much — two out of three of my roommates are also FLI students, and one is in my SIFP group.

Overall, I’m really thankful for the support I’ve received from Princeton as a FLI student. I’m excited to see what the University comes up with over the next few years to continue that support for future cohorts!

At Princeton, I struggled with loneliness because of my unique socialization as an FLI, immigrant student. Growing up, I never had sleepovers, never invited friends over for birthday parties, and only began hanging out with people towards the end of my time in high school. Part of the reason was my laser focus on education, because I knew that was going to be my family's ticket out. Part of it was growing up as an immigrant child, scared of interacting with anyone outside of my family, of my peers, of người Mỹ (Americans), and therefore never letting anyone into my home or my private life.

I think a large part of being successful and happy here at Princeton is to channel a kind of socialization that is generous towards strangers, something that can be challenging for me, particularly within a predominantly white, upper-middle class campus. But I've found people, both on campus and off, whom I can lean on for support, and while it has taken a while to build, this support network has been so worth it.

As an FLI student at Princeton, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is learning how to be a college student. I had to figure out how to search for colleges and scholarships — and apply all by myself, because nobody in my family had ever had this experience before. I distinctly remember my grandmother asking me, “Do you have to bring a bed?”, and I had to laugh, but it made me realize how truly foreign this was for us.

Many students I’ve met have witnessed siblings, cousins, and other friends and loved ones go away to college and have a lot of prior experience and knowledge about what college is like, but I came here not really knowing what to expect. Over the past two months, I have been connected with so many resources, which is not surprising at such a deeply wealthy institution, but is not at all what I’m used to. While I am very grateful for all these opportunities, along with them comes a disconnect with my family because the life I’m living here is starkly different from the one that I live at home. A year ago, I was doing household chores during my breaks from synchronous virtual high school and helping my little sister through virtual third grade.

Now, I am able to dedicate much more time to my studies, but it does bring guilt that I can’t help out at home. I would say that my time here has not come without its challenges, but I am proud to help pave the way for FLI students at Princeton!

Coming into Princeton as an FLI student, I was scared. I'd heard the stereotypes — that Princeton students were overwhelmingly wealthy, jetting off to frequent fancy dinners and wearing high-end fashion. However, my actual experience was much different. Not only did the University support me in a way that left me wanting for practically nothing, but I also found that my peers were extraordinarily understanding and down-to-earth — and many of them were also part of the thriving FLI community on campus.

Little has changed in my perspective; I feel well-supported by University aid and able to get what I need. However, my status has limited me in one crucial way: eating clubs. Although upperclass student financial aid does increase to account for eating club expenses, some clubs, like Tower, are still far too expensive — forcing me to leave the club. I've heard similar stories for specific clubs from my FLI peers, and this is one inequity I'd love to see addressed by either the administration or the clubs themselves.