Student leaders advocate for change in a plethora of ways, and at Harvard, students have recently demanded a pre-orientation program for students from marginalized communities, more specifically students from first-generation or low-income backgrounds as well under-resourced high schools. While such an idea is new to Harvard, the importance of pre-orientation programs as touchpoints for students has been well documented in the literature. It suggests that while being academically adjusted to an institution, the social and psychological adjustments are just as important: “the need to feel comfortable and accepted into the new environment also plays a large role in perseverance and success. By being socially accepted into the university culture, feeling comfortable in their new environment and by being successful, students are more likely to persevere” (Grout 2009: 1). Using the example of Harvard’s First Year Retreat & Experience (FYRE), the purpose of the program is to foster a sense of belonging for students. They should feel a sense of ownership over their education after the three and half days of the program by transmitting social and cultural capital to the students.
Using the theoretical framework of Anthony Jack’s “Privileged Poor” and “Doubly Disadvantage,” FYRE was designed to help the latter adjust to an institution like Harvard. Jack explains the distinction as such: “the privileged poor — lower-income undergraduates who attended boarding, day, and preparatory high schools . . . the doubly disadvantaged — lower-income undergraduates who remained tied to their home communities and attended local, often distressed high schools” (Jack 2015: 2). He goes on to argue that students that are the privileged poor tend to have the cultural and social capital to adequately adjust to elite institutions while the doubly disadvantage do not. This theory proves useful in helping to identify which students would best be served by FYRE. The question then becomes how this framework could be applied to the team leaders of the program. In other words, while allyship is important, the program seeks to foster a mentorship between the students and the team leaders by having leaders who can relate to the struggles of the students. Yet, if the team leader comes from the privileged poor, this could create a power dynamic in which the two cannot connect.
This relates back to the previous section in which student leaders come from a specific demographic since they tend to drive a progressive agenda on college campuses; however, Malcolm-Piqueux paints students from marginalized communities as monolithic when Jack’s work articulates the opposite. And so, the leaders of FYRE come from a variety of backgrounds all with varying degrees of social and cultural capital. As the co-chair of FYRE, I am critical of my role and the privilege that I hold from having gone to a prep school. I wonder if I could have gotten this program started if I was groomed to be a part of the “elite leadership” on Harvard’s campus. Yet, I still feel as if the administration is taking advantage of position as a first-generation, modest-means student. To that extent, I wonder how I have contributed or challenged the normalization of un- and underpaid student labor on this campus. In trying to answer these questions as I have interviewed student leaders of FYRE and administrators at Harvard College as well as students nearby at elite institutions.