CAMBRIDGE — To the legions of students who have been tutored and molded and prodded toward a top college most of their young lives, it would be an absurd question: How many of you had to explain to your parents what MIT is?
When a dean asked a Massachusetts Institute of Technology classroom full of 20-odd freshmen recently in their first few days away from home — at one of the most famous colleges in the world — almost every hand went up. Then, they laughed. And someone cracked a math joke.
These students are “first generation,” the first in their families to go to college. And they are the third class to whom MIT has reached out during orientation, not only to offer support but to instill pride in young people who have shown extraordinary drive yet often feel alone and inadequate amid affluent classmates who have already published papers or traveled the world.
MIT’s First Generation Project, which also includes peer mentoring and networking events, is just one sign of a growing movement, sometimes led by colleges, sometimes pushed on reluctant administrators by students, to carve out a recognizable identity for a largely invisible population.
Chastised for largely serving the progeny of well-off families, elite colleges have in recent years boosted their efforts to recruit and financially support low-income and first-generation students. Bans on affirmative action in several states — and increased scrutiny from the Supreme Court — have also spurred universities to find new ways to build diverse classes.
With more economic diversity has come greater awareness of the unique pressures first-generation students face. Not only did most graduate from less rigorous high schools — whether in New England, across the United States, or abroad — but they may lack a basic understanding of college culture. No loved ones can explain that a bad grade doesn’t prove them incapable or that a professor won’t judge them harshly for coming to office hours.
Some have parents who are resentful that they left home or that they aren’t working full time to help pay the family bills. For others, it’s the opposite burden: a fear that doing poorly would dishonor their parents’ sacrifices.
Miri Skolnik, a dean in MIT’s student support services, launched the First Generation Project after noticing that many of the students who came into her office to request leaves of absence were first-generation. She has seen one student sell his textbooks to give his mother money for gas and another try to study for exams while helping his family fight eviction.
Allie Hexley, the bubbly daughter of a fitness instructor and an administrative assistant, could hardly be more gung-ho about starting at MIT. But during orientation, she had a few extra things on her mind, like how to gracefully bow out when new friends go out to dinners she can’t afford. And she felt guilty for being the only one to leave her home in Birmingham, England.
“You feel like you are leaving people who need you, to be selfish,” she said after a reception for first-generation freshmen. “It’s just nice to know there are other people who get it.”
The proportion of students whose parents didn’t finish college tends to range from about 12 to 18 percent at highly selective colleges, officials on several campuses said. At MIT, 16 percent of this year’s freshmen have parents who did not earn a four-year degree. Studies show that low-income students, many of whom are first-generation, have lower graduation rates.
Some colleges, including Tufts and Northeastern, offer classes the summer before freshman year and ongoing support for small groups of low-income and first-generation students. For the past three years, Smith College has offered a day-and-a-half program during orientation to help first-generation students “feel as entitled to Smith as any other student,” said Dean of the College Maureen A. Mahoney.
Smith wants to ensure, for example, that they understand they can get financial aid to study abroad.
A growing number of students and college officials want to promote campuswide the concept that it’s a feat to be a college-going pioneer. That’s why in MIT’s famed Infinite Corridor, it has been hard to miss the glossy posters for the university’s First Generation Project, with portraits of students and faculty above the slogan “I am First Generation.”
One of the smiling faces is Rafael Reif, who grew up poor in Venezuela, the son of Holocaust refugees, and last year became president of MIT.
Outside groups are also trying to help first-generation students. Using a grant from the Gates Foundation, a small nonprofit called the Center for Student Opportunity is about to relaunch the website for its “I’m First” project. It provides high school students with information about colleges and features student testimonials inspired by the “It Gets Better” project to support gay youth.
A Boston-based national group called Class Action, which focuses on classism, gathered students and administrators from several campuses at Brown University this spring for its first summit on how schools can better support first-generation students.
On some campuses, first-generation students have been the ones demanding attention. Jessica Boyle was homeless when she arrived at Colby College in Maine five years ago. She had nowhere to go during her freshmen year winter break, when the dorms closed. So every time she left her room for food, she got locked out and had to call security and plead her way back in.
When Boyle first tried to start initiatives for first-generation students, she said, administrators told her that other students would be too embarrassed to discuss poverty.
Boyle, who graduated in 2012 and now does fund-raising for MIT, eventually found a supportive administrator and a champion on Colby’s board of trustees who helped her with such projects as free school supplies and a handbook full of advice for first-generation students.
At MIT over the past three years, Skolnik and a group of first-generation students have organized dinners and other events, as well as a mentoring program that matches freshmen with upperclassmen.
One of the most powerful things, several students said, was simply hearing the stories of successful older students and professors who started out like them.
Among those featured on the First Generation Project website is Leona D. Samson, who grew up in the industrial north of England being told she was stupid, dropped out of high school at 15, then nearly flunked her exams in her first year of university.
Now a biological engineering professor, Samson feels “a huge amount of joy” to have ended up at MIT, she said in an interview. “One wonderful thing about not having expectations for yourself … is that everything that happens is just such a surprise.”
Of course, the young people still struggling their way through MIT have their own amazing stories.
Junior Lyndsy Muri, the daughter of a landscaper and secretary from Ashland, wants to be an astronaut but arrived at MIT not knowing that computers run on code.
With no financial support from her parents, she makes the smallest college meal plan stretch out for the entire week. When the rest of her lacrosse team agrees to wear matching $80 Sperry boat shoes to an event, she gamely shows up in flip-flops.
Another MIT junior, Fidelis Chimombe, grew up in Zimbabwe with no computer, wearing the same sneakers for three years so his widowed mother could pay his school fees. He juggles a campus job and charity work and can’t afford to live in his fraternity because he is sending money home.
Last semester, Chimombe fell into a depression when he was doing poorly in some of his classes but felt he couldn’t tell his mother.
Yet he is already thinking about how he’s going to help his country — expanding access to telecommunications, supporting orphanages, maybe one day running for president.
“My children will not live the way we lived,” he said.