Aisha Abdelhamid and Avery Robinson - Story of Self
Browsing through the pre-orientations, the choice was obvious: Fall Clean Up and/or the First-Year Retreat & Experience. One program would prepare us financially for college while the other would prepare us socially and navigationally. As first-generation, low-income students, being faced with this decision was especially difficult because we needed support from both ends. While neither programs had guaranteed admission, we were both fortunate to be admitted to FYRE 2019, being among the second cohort of 100 students to benefit from this program.
During the FYRE program, we attended panels and workshops that exposed us to Harvard’s offices and professors who were there to advocate for us and support us in our Harvard experience. Along with this we engaged in many different social events and games, like our infamous ice cream social and silent disco, that gave us the opportunity to connect with other “FYREflies” and build everlasting relationships. Finally, within our FYRE families, we shared personal successes, struggles, quirks, and overall experiences that shaped us into who we were. Connecting at such a personal level during family time promoted a sense of comfort and relief in the transition into college by showing us that if no one else, we had our FYRE family to lean on. Learning about Harvard’s resources and opportunities and developing a dependable community of friends and mentors all within the first week of college, granted us the ability to begin college without feeling too overwhelmed with the anxiety that comes with being a FGLI/UR student at an elite institution.
FYRE introduced us to many resources we might have never otherwise encountered, however, other than the informal mentor relationships and community we kept, there were no continued tangible resources. After 3 days of being inundated with resources, Harvard threw us into a world we have never before encountered. FYRE felt like a bubble of comfort that was unmatched by any other community, resource, or office at Harvard. As FGLI/UR students with little to no experience with private institutions, this change in environment was jarring, providing the institutional context in which this 3-day bubble of unbridled, unconditional support existed. So while FYRE transformed our experience at Harvard, its structure could have not prepared us for the institution we were thrown into.
While FYRE faced structural barriers to supporting FGLI/UR students throughout their four years, we knew how essential the program and the Team Leaders were in aiding our transition into Harvard. So, the following year we guided our own FYRE families, teaching yet learning alongside them how to navigate a new virtual reality. While the pandemic was very isolating for us--as it was for many--FYRE never made us feel like we were sitting in front of Zoom. No Zoom call had as much energy, passion and love as FYRE brought to the screen.
Even in the virtual world, our love for FYRE grew and we both separately decided to apply as co-chairs to further transform the program that changed our lives….
Coming to Harvard, I (Avery) was very excited to be starting a new chapter in my life. However, that excitement was combated by the anxiety brought on by the thought of not being able to find a group of people that I could truly connect with. All of that anxiety went away as soon as I saw the table with the college students wearing red shirts. FYRE has been one of the most welcoming, genuine, fruitful communities I’ve ever been a part of. Through FYRE I was able to meet my best friends; I was able to talk about what my parents did without being judged. I was able to dance randomly, talk about my high school experience, and listen to others share about their lives. I was able to hear about all the commonalities and differences among one of the strongest groups of people I’ve ever met. In FYRE I was able to be my whole self, unapologetically. This past fall I applied for FYRE Co-Chair because I wanted to be able to make the next hundred or so incoming freshmen feel that exact same way. After being a student in the FYRE program my freshman year, and a FYRE TL this past summer, I had seen what FYRE could do for people and I wanted to continue to create programming that prepared FGLI/UR students to be confident in themselves and succeed in their college career.FYRE has been a family for me since I first stepped foot on campus and I think some of the strongest, compassionate families are ones that aren’t connected by blood. This continues to hold true for me now as FYRE Co-Chair and I can proudly say that I love my FYRE family and I know they love me too.
Personally, (Aisha) applying for financial aid was infinitely worse than applying to colleges. A lot of crying went into filling out those endless, complicated forms. The entire process was very isolating; I didn’t feel like I could ask for help from the people closest to me. Simply put, I was ashamed of my status. I had this feeling of shame from when I was in elementary school until high school. Had I not been in FYRE, I definitely would have carried this shame throughout college. FYRE helped me feel comfortable in my skin and recognize the helpful resources and people around me. After joining the Steering Committee and going through FYRE 2019’s impact report, I could see the growth in confidence, agency, and sense of belonging that FYRE brought to nearly everyone in the 2019 cohort. This data reminded me of my own growth and how integral FYRE came to be a part of my life. FYRE turned me from someone who was ashamed of being FGLI/UR to someone who won’t shut up about being FGLI/UR, also leading to be proud of my other marginalized identities. These factors motivated me to apply for FYRE co-chair, hoping to empower students into feeling comfortable in their skin, being proud of their backgrounds, and knowing people they can turn to for anything.
Now, as sophomores studying Sociology and Educational Studies, we navigate our co-chair roles with the background and intention of upholding education equity, recognizing how Harvard and FYRE impact ourselves and our communities. In trying to form the FYRE program, we faced institutional and individual challenges to implementing what we wished FYRE could be. We hope that our work doesn’t begin and end in FYRE, in terms of duration, people, or impact. We hope that this project emphasizes this and the urgency of expanding FYRE and FGLI/UR support at Harvard.