Fighting Irish for All

Program helps under-resourced students have full Notre Dame experience

As Eric Kim started his junior year at Notre Dame, he didn’t know how he could accomplish what most students take for granted — welcoming his parents to Junior Parents Weekend (JPW) in February.

Flying from California to South Bend was not a cost his family could absorb. The absence would sting because Kim was leading the committee hosting the weekend’s events and would therefore be a featured speaker at one of the dinners.

Kim’s father sells T-shirts at outdoor markets and his mother translates documents for the county government. Neither had studied in the U.S., so they couldn’t guide him in the complicated process of applying for financial aid and college. Still, Kim received nearly full support to attend Notre Dame, and a scholarship from the Orange County alumni club covered much of the rest.

Eric Kim with his mother and Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. stand in front of a backdrop in a studio.
Eric Kim stands with his mother and Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

“My parents to this day don’t know what Notre Dame is,” Kim said in October. “My mom nearly crashed the car because I screamed when I got accepted. Then she asked me where it was. She wanted me to see what USC said before I responded.”

Arriving at Notre Dame was a shock for Kim. His college classmates had plenty of money to buy clothes or go out for dinner. They talked about places they’d been or plans to study abroad.

Realizing he couldn’t afford these things, Kim chose to focus on campus leadership positions that aligned with his goal of working in the hospitality industry. He wanted his mother to come to JPW, see his success and understand what made Notre Dame special.

Illustrations of an envelope, Notre Dame football tickets, a phone, and a laptop with a plane flying around it.

Kim’s quandary was solved through the Fighting Irish Initiative, which paid for tickets for his mother and a family friend to attend JPW. The program, run by the Office of Student Enrichment (OSE), created in 2016, aims to ensure every student receives the full Notre Dame experience. Started with a gift of $20 million from Sean and Sue Cullinan, the office helps first-generation and low-income students adjust to the college environment and covers the costs for related expenses, such as winter clothing, a laptop computer, or tickets for football games.

The OSE offers two main forms of assistance. Students can apply online for the Student Experience (or Opportunity) Fund, which can be used for anything from move-in expenses to hall events and from professional clothing to Commencement costs. This program replaced the more informal rector funds, and it created a full-time position to oversee it.

The second program, Fighting Irish Scholars, offers eligible students $2,000 per year for expenses, with half coming in cash and half in Domer Dollars that can be used to purchase meals or goods at many on- and off-campus restaurants and stores. It includes regular meetings to discuss navigating college, time management and budgeting, and it matches them with older student mentors in an effort to build a supportive community.

Recognizing a need

Top colleges across the country have struggled for years to increase the diversity — both racial and economic — of their student body, a situation brought into sharp relief by the recent scandal involving wealthy parents paying large sums for backdoor and illegal routes to get their kids into prestigious schools.

Too many [students] lack guidance, resources and services — and end up dropping out, further burdened with student debt.

However, success in bringing in more low socio-economic status (LSES) and first-generation students has opened the door to a whole new set of challenges in meeting these students’ varying needs and creating a supportive environment where they can thrive. Enrolling more low income and first generation students in elite colleges is a complex topic, but this story is about how to ensure they flourish once they are there.

Nationally, the problem can be measured clearly through retention statistics. A 2018 report by the Center for First-Generation Student Success found that first-generation students make up a third of all college students, yet only 27 percent of this group graduates within four years. The success rate drops precipitously if the student is also low-income. Too many lack guidance, resources and services — and end up dropping out, further burdened with student debt.

But retention is not the issue at Notre Dame and other elite colleges, where more than 95 percent completion is the norm. Surviving does not mean that Notre Dame LSES and first-generation students always feel like they are part of the Notre Dame family. They often struggle to adjust.

An illustration of a woman holding and staring into a mirror at herself feeling nervous.

“It’s called the impostor syndrome,” said Consuela Howell, director of student enrichment. “All students struggle with it to some degree, because it’s the first time meeting people as talented as themselves. Most get over it easily enough, but first-generation and low-income students find it more difficult. Their experiences often reinforce rather than combat the feeling.”

One of the clearest examples, Howell said, is asking for help. Some arrive thinking faculty office hours list the times their professors can’t be disturbed. They don’t know about services like the writing center, free tutoring or career counseling. Lacking a parent with collegiate experience, they may not know who to ask for help. Finding a mentor can be intimidating if you’ve never been given the opportunity to be mentored and aren’t sure how to reach out.

Any feelings of not being worthy get compounded by the wealth they encounter in their peers. Their classmates often cannot conceive how different another person’s financial situation can be. They don’t realize that their last vacation may have cost more than some families’ annual income.

“There were days I struggled with culture shock,” Kim said. “People make comments that reflect economic status. They’re not selfish, just oblivious. They’re not from a background where they have to consider that.”

Straddling different cultures

Many elite colleges, including Notre Dame, enroll significantly more wealthy students than those who are economically disadvantaged. A 2004 study found that at the most competitive colleges, students from the richest quarter of the population outnumber the underprivileged quarter by 25 to 1. This imbalance can produce culture shock and a cultural gap.

He said he’s grateful for so many opportunities, but he wonders if Notre Dame can do more to make LSES and first-generation students a part of the campus culture.

Selwin Wainaina, who graduated in May, felt the effects of both. He grew up in Detroit with a single mother raising five kids. Like Kim, he participated in a spring visit program designed to recruit diverse students to Notre Dame — and that camaraderie drew him in.

But his freshman year was chaotic. His financial paperwork wasn’t in order and his struggling public school didn’t offer classes that would have prepared him for the rigors of his pre-med major. He didn’t go to football games because he couldn’t afford the tickets, or even the $20 price tag of “The Shirt” everyone else wore.

Headshot of Selwin Wainaina.
Selwin Wainaina and a friend at graduation.

“When asked about my absence, I offered the excuse of an overwhelming work load in the forms of exams or imaginary papers that may or may not have existed at all,” Wainaina wrote in a 2017 letter to the Observer student newspaper. “The truth was too embarrassing to admit.”

Wainaina said things settled down sophomore year, when he switched his major to political science and Latino studies and moved off campus. He found a new club called 1stG ND that began in August 2016 and met monthly to discuss the members’ unique perspective of the University.

“Although many of the meetings consisted of sharing common grievances without apparent solutions,” Wainaina summed up, “it still provided community and helped us get a lot off our chest.”

He became co-president for two years, the second a rebuilding one for the group as it transitioned from an outgrowth of the Office of Student Enrichment to an official club under the Student Activities Office.

Wainaina scraped together his own money for football tickets and finally resolved problems in his financial forms so he could access OSE funds. He used them to buy his Commencement garments and attend Senior Week activities like a Chicago Cubs game. He will move to Chicago soon to begin working as an adviser for Deloitte.

He said he’s grateful for so many opportunities, but he wonders if Notre Dame can do more to make LSES and first-generation students a part of the campus culture. “People know about the Office of Student Enrichment, but they aren’t sure what it can help with,” he said.

Once under-resourced students acculturate to Notre Dame, Howell said a new set of challenges arise. Some feel guilty about leaving responsibilities and problems back home. Others hesitate to communicate their struggles or accomplishments because it would sound ungrateful for the family’s sacrifice. They can feel stranded — not fitting in at school, and no longer belonging at home.

“It was a learning experience to adjust to the white culture,” Kim said. “Then becoming part of the majority can be overwhelming at home. It was a reverse culture shock to hear Korean again.”

Changing the paradigm

Howell said informing students about her office was once a challenge, largely because conversations about money and family are tricky and uncomfortable. Students may not want to draw attention to their struggles or post about the 1stG club on Facebook. “They often try to hide it,” she said. So how do you advertise services or the club in a way that makes students want to wear those badges?

She said the creation of an online form for assistance has made the request process less obtrusive. As soon as students use it once, they realize it’s simple and come again. Howell can empathize; she went to UCLA as a first-generation student. She tells students to see the funds not as a handout but as an investment.

A woman speaks in front of students.
Consuela Howell, director of student enrichment.

“You don’t need to go in to a person with a sob story,” she said. “That’s gone a long way to making them not feel like the other.”

The OSE fulfilled 463 requests in its first year, distributing nearly $150,000. Greater awareness and the new request process has increased participation, and the office helped more than 600 students in some way in the 2018-19 academic year. Howell said the OSE sponsored 74 Fighting Irish Scholars last year, a number that will grow to around 100 next year.

In April 2017, The Shirt Project announced that it would dedicate a portion of its profits from selling the football-themed shirt students wear to games to the Student Enrichment Endowment. The Shirt Project, created in 1990, is a fundraising initiative run by a student committee that had been directing a portion of its profits to the rector fund.

Howell said the OSE plans to add new services in the future, including support for summer programs that aren’t covered now. Shorter study abroad, volunteer and research projects are a growing part of the ND experience.

An illustration of the shirt with a football on the front, that says “Notre Dame Football.”

The recruitment of LSES and first-generation students to top universities across the country, plus a political climate where students tackle issues head-on, has led to a greater demand for change and fairness on campuses nationwide.

Students at the University of Michigan and some other colleges started an online guide to “Being Not-Rich” at their school, offering tips on how to navigate academic culture or save money. Ivy League students founded 1vyG, a club that inspired the founders of the Notre Dame group.

Some students are changing a stigma into pride by wearing 1stG apparel. Organizing around the term “first generation” has a more positive appeal and broader acceptance than “low income.” The terms are not synonymous but often overlap. This language switch celebrates a remarkable accomplishment rather than making people feel ashamed about poverty, an unchosen circumstance they are actively escaping.

Schools are responding. Georgetown started a one-credit class called “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum” that shows students how to cultivate relationships, pursue opportunities and advocate for themselves in ways other students may have learned from a mentor or college-educated parent. Brown University next year will buy required textbooks for many low-income students after discovering that some were giving up food for books.

Learning what works

These changes have mainly launched in the last five years even though top universities have been admitting LSES and first-generation students for decades. In the fall of 1973, Harvard admitted 15 high-achieving Mexican American students.

“Why did it take 40 years to figure out we’re still in the same place in serving these students? It takes a lot of commitment to change.”

Luis Fraga, the director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, was one of this “Harvard 15.” While two dropped out, many others excelled. Fraga is a leading academic, for example, and Rick Hernandez, a Notre Dame parent, is the chairman of the board of McDonald’s. Fraga said it appeared to be an experiment to see how they would do.

“There was no support at all,” Fraga said. “It was sink or swim. I think there’s much more institutional commitment now.”

Fraga said there are still more ways that elite universities can aid under-resourced students. While retention is strong, many drop STEM majors (like Wainaina did) because they were never exposed to these subjects before and need more support.

“Universities are centers of innovation and learning,” Fraga said. “Why did it take 40 years to figure out we’re still in the same place in serving these students? It takes a lot of commitment to change.”

Beyond academics, cultural integration can still be tricky.

Tiffany Rojas, a rising senior, grew up in a Dallas suburb, the oldest of four siblings. Her parents moved there from Mexico and became U.S. citizens before she was born. A counselor at her high school suggested she apply to Notre Dame, which offered her a better financial package than her other choice, Texas A&M.

Headshot of Tiffany Rojas.
Tiffany Rojas

Rojas said she “intensively Googled” to figure out the college process, like filling out the FAFSA financial forms and common application. “My parents didn’t understand why I was so stressed,” she said. “No one from my high school had attended here the last 10 years. People mainly go to community colleges.”

While Rojas loved the spring visit, she said she struggled with culture shock upon arrival. Dorm mates would go out for bowling, pizza or ice cream. Not attending hindered friendships, and she was relieved to move off campus junior year, which also saved money.

“I didn’t realize how different the outside was from my hometown,” said Rojas, who is majoring in economics and Chinese.

Study abroad was the one college experience Rojas really wanted. She hoped to study Chinese through an intensive language program that completes a full year of study in eight summer weeks. But the program cost $8,600. So she cobbled together a slew of resources — a Summer Language Abroad grant, loans, financial aid, work savings and parents’ help — and went.

An Illustration of a tow truck towing a car.

Her parents concealed until later that their car was repossessed because they gave her the car payment money to go on the trip. “These are the things you don’t want to tell people,” she said.

On the positive side, the trip was amazing, eye-opening. Support from the Fighting Irish Scholars program helped her recover from the ensuing financial hole. She could buy football tickets and clothes for interviews and replace some of what she’d spent.

“Next year, I want the 1stG club to do more outreach to younger students, so they don’t have to learn the hard way,” said Rojas, who will be the club’s president next year. “Becoming a regular club should provide more continuity.”

Eric Kim said his mother’s visit for JPW exceeded his expectations. Because he led the planning, his mother sat at one event with Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., and she overcame her own fear enough to have a pleasant conversation.

Kim was able to show her and his family friend the campus and what people mean by the Notre Dame family. Next year, he will be the executive director of the Student Union Board, the campus club responsible for planning entertainment and speaking events.

“I think after three years, she finally understands why Notre Dame is my place,” Kim said. “She called me when she got home to say, ‘I’m proud of you.’ Not just for the speech and the JPW events, but because I’ve found my footing.”