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Observer Editorial: You belong here

| Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Sometimes it may seem like everyone at Notre Dame has a grandpa, three aunts, two parents, a brother and a handful of cousins who went here before them. For many, the traditions of the University have been ingrained into them since they were old enough to hold a football. 

About 19% of Notre Dame students are considered “legacy” students, meaning one or both of their parents are alumni of the University. But very few Notre Dame students identify as low-income or first-generation, and the resources available to them are not well-known. 

This week marks the second First-Generation, Low-Income Week in 2021 — only the third in Notre Dame’s history. Throughout the week, the University will offer resources to these students and host events to honor their experiences.

This year, 12% of the first-year class are first-generation students — the first in their family to go to college — and 14.5% are Pell Grant recipients, students who have demonstrated substantial financial need. Though these numbers have been trending upwards in recent years, they are dismal compared to the national averages.

Nationwide, 33.6% of undergraduate students received a Pell Grant in the 2019-2020 academic year. At Notre Dame, in the same year, only 11.1% of the class of 2023 were recipients, indicating an underrepresentation of lower socioeconomic backgrounds on the University’s campus.

The number of admitted first-generation and low-income students has reached record highs in recent years, yet we still fall far short of the national average. Comparatively, 22% of the Holy Cross first-year class and 32% of the Saint Mary’s first-year class are first-generation students, coming much closer to the national average than Notre Dame.

In an analysis of the economic diversity and student outcomes at Notre Dame conducted by the New York Times in 2014, only 1.6% of students come from the bottom 20% of family income, whereas 75% come from the top 20%.

Combined household income and parents’ highest level of education have been found to be correlated with the type of secondary education — public or private — their children receive. And the disparity persists as students continue into postsecondary education: Among college students, the average household income for first-generation students is $41,000, compared to $90,000 for continuing-generation students. Compared to students who attended a private high school, students in public schools are twice as likely to have a parent who has not completed high school. 

At Notre Dame, ​53% of the current first-year class attended a private, charter or Catholic high school, leaving the University vulnerable to the disparities listed above. Naturally, some high schools are better funded and more well-equipped to help students prepare for higher education. As a result, adjusting to the college experience might be more difficult for those that don’t fit the criteria of an “average” Notre Dame student.

On Wednesday, the Office of Student Enrichment (OSE) at Notre Dame is hosting a panel entitled “I Belong: Life During and After ND” in the Andrews Auditorium in Geddes Hall from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Students can also join the OSE this Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. for “Journaling and Art,” a discussion on the importance of journaling as a tool to improve mental health and well-being.

And other timeless resources for first-generation and low-income students are also available. Notre Dame’s OSE and the Saint Mary’s Office for Student Equity award funding to any low-income student in need of items related to their campus experience, including football tickets, club fees, laptops, winter clothing and more. To receive funding at Notre Dame, you just need to fill out a short application. To receive funding at Saint Mary’s, contact the Office for Student Equity.

Notre Dame’s OSE also hosts the Fighting Irish Scholars Program, which awards a $2,000 scholarship to low-income, high-achieving students to support their Notre Dame experience.

First-generation students have been found to be likelier to experience impostor syndrome — intense feelings of self-doubt and unbelonging — and are thus likelier to feel out of place in the tri-campus community. 

To assist with any psychological burdens that might come with experiencing college as a first-generation or low-income student, there are also numerous mental health resources available across the tri-campus community. At Holy Cross, students can receive up to six free confidential counseling sessions. Saint Mary’s also offers free counseling to their students. While the number of individual appointments is limited, Notre Dame students can also receive counseling through the University Counseling Center.

Each campus also offers academic help through writing centers, mathematics centers, first-year advising, peer tutoring and more. For more information, visit the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s or Holy Cross academic support websites.

To non-first-generation students: Make sure to be mindful of your first-generation and low-income peers. Encourage them to seek out the support they may need, and try not to assume that everyone has access to the same resources that you have been privileged to receive.

If you are a first-generation, a low-income student or both: It is OK to feel overwhelmed or confused in an environment that may feel unfamiliar. You are not beneath your peers that had access to more resources from the get-go, and you should get help when you need it — because you are not alone, and you belong here.

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