Standing at the back of the room, silhouetted in the doorway, Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning, Michael Dennin set the tone for the symposium by saying “Institutions and faculty administrators often forget that we set the rules so we can change the rules. And if we can’t be self-critical, we can’t make progress. So what could we do better?”

Asking a panel of UCI students how the university could improve was the perfect way to close the first ever Facilitating Social Mobility in Higher Education Symposium. Hundreds of participants from colleges all over California joined UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman to discuss how higher education needs to change, and what we can do to help make a difference now.

The faculty panel of professors included David Grusky of Stanford, Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute, Donald Treiman of UCLA, and George Farkas of UC Irvine. They discussed how students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds come to college with a multitude of advantages that they don’t even realize —  from financial literacy to the ability to write a formal email. Besides financial resources, students with college-educated parents tend to have a much easier transition into college life.

According to Carmen Taylor, a practitioner at Cal State Long Beach, change starts with “Reframing how we assist our students. We are looking at how we assist students who are housing, food, and financially insecure. It’s pretty basic but it’s still very real in today’s time that it’s difficult to be successful if your basic needs haven’t been met. How do students sustain themselves, learn financial literacy to stretch the limited resources they do have? Some students tell me that they eat one meal a day. That’s not enough. At least 13% of our students are homeless and 20% are hungry. But we’re very privileged; we get to pick and choose whose needs are met.”  Addressing these basic needs seems obvious, yet low-income students are drastically underserved when it comes to food, clothing, and shelter. How are they supposed to thrive when they can barely survive?

That’s why programs like Summer Bridge Scholars that help underprivileged students adjust to college life and find a support network are critical. UCI’s Student Success Initiatives provide foster youth, first-generation, transfer and undocumented students a community they can lean on, and the resources they need to be successful.

The individualist approach to these programs is what has made them so successful, a point that was discussed in the practitioner panel consisting of Carmen Taylor, Henry Gee, and Lindsay Romasanta. A self-described “champion for emerging scholars,” Lindsay Romasanta said that “One thing is we need to make sure that we’re not approaching them from an identity neutral position. For low-income and first-generation students, identity-conscious strategies just work so much better. But there’s a proposal to cut work-study by half and many other programs. While we’re designing programs we have to look up and think what is happening here, are we meeting basic needs.”

Donald Treiman pointed out that “There’s a factor that hasn’t been discussed yet. That being the kinds of perceptions that people have about whether higher education is even a possibility for them. Some students come from families who never considered college as an option. That’s something you see very clearly in America — class rigidity. The inability to believe that things can change.”

Student panelist Gabriela Campos was one of these students who grew up in “a very low socioeconomic background” and as a result, “I just didn’t think I was smart enough for UCs. Like maybe my family thought I was smart but no way. I hoped that one day things would change, but I didn’t know how.”

But hope is how students from low-income backgrounds come to colleges like UCI in the first place. They place their trust and their future in our hands, raising the question: Are we actually helping them achieve a better life for themselves and their families? And how can we do more?

Brandon Cabrera, another student panelist, raised the point that “My parents came here because they wanted a better life. A better life was never defined though so how do you ever get there? We were doing things blindly in the hopes that one day we’d just kind of land there.”

Maybe the place to start is helping young people see a different kind of future for themselves. Helping them believe that no matter where they come from, they can achieve their dreams. One way UCI is helping inspire students from all income levels and backgrounds is the Activate Talent Initiative which highlights first-generation success stories to give students hope for a better life through higher education.

One story can inspire countless others. One act of kindness can save a life. One day — one symposium — can make a world of difference.

As Sandy Baum said, “The real thing is to educate them in such a way that they will go out into the world and try to change the world and the inequality they see around them. How you educate your students is the most important thing. Helping people believe in social justice and become the kind of person who will make a difference.”

Learn more about how UCI is supporting social mobility by visiting the Student Success Initiatives.

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