President's Letter

My personal story

  • My name is Daniel Lobo and I am the President of First Generation Harvard Alumni. I was born and raised in East Boston—a hop and a skip away from Harvard on the T—and spent the second half of my childhood in Lynn, a city just north of Boston. I take pride in an upbringing that, although rife with hardship and wanting, is emblematic of the American dream. My parents immigrated to this country in search of education and opportunity. Instead, they deferred their own dreams to the next generation as they accepted a new life that would need to be built with their own hands. Laboring in low-skilled hospitality jobs for over 35 years, my parents managed to save enough to purchase their own home, raise four American children while towing the poverty line, and send one of their children to the most lauded institution of higher learning in the world.

 

  • I consider my parents’ sacrifice the first of many lessons they taught to me. The motivation to achieve what my parents could not—born out of that sacrifice—is the most powerful force of human nature that I have experienced in my life. It has given me a sense of purpose that has taken me to parts of the world, near and far, that I could barely dream of less than 10 years ago. This sense of purpose, to achieve the previously unachievable, is something I see in every first-gen I meet. The permutations of the mission vary, creating a beautiful global mosaic of a hero’s journey. The glimmer of an indestructible commitment to achievement, however, remains a blinding constant.

 

  • Part of my life’s mission is to harness the full potential of first-gen heroism for myself and for my community. As someone who can trace every accomplishment back to a single serendipitous moment of opportunity in a tragedy of disadvantage, I am viscerally aware of the odds stacked against our community, even when we “make it.” As the beneficiary of a transformative Harvard education, I am enlightened with the knowledge of what first-gens are capable of achieving when unquestionable merit meets elusive opportunity. These contradictory experiences continue to complicate my understanding of our purportedly meritocratic liberal democracy. However, one point remains clear in my mind: the moral imperative to extend my newfound privilege to those still disadvantaged, however I can.

A brief history of FGHA and FGSU

  • Founded by my predecessor, Kevin Jennings ’85, more than five years ago, the First Generation Harvard Alumni (FGHA) is one of the University’s youngest shared interest groups. Under Kevin’s experienced leadership, FGHA has had an enormous impact despite our organizational infancy. Guided by a mission to support first-gen undergraduates at the College, FGHA created, evaluated, and optimized an alumni mentoring program—the first of its kind—that continues to serve over 100 incoming first-gen freshmen each year.
  • Over that same time period, our group has amassed an international membership of more than 500 alumni who have organized community events in Boston, New York, and beyond. We have contributed our stories and voices to the growing national discourse on the first-gen experience and leveraged our experience to provide technical assistance to similar groups across the country. And, we have supported the incredible community-building and advocacy efforts of the Harvard College First Generation Student Union. This year, FGSU successfully advocated for the College to invest in a summer bridge program for incoming first-gen students. FGHA efforts earned us the Harvard Alumni Association SIG Award at the Annual Leadership Conference in February 2017. FGHA was recognized for “working tirelessly to raise awareness of First Generation issues and their efforts have made a tremendous impact on the lives of Harvard students and alumni.”

Strategic priorities going forward

  • As the second President of FGHA, it is my responsibility to usher the group into its next phase of organizational development. Supporting students has been the core of our mission since inception and we will continue to find creative, necessary ways to champion first-gen students at Harvard. In addition, we must learn to define ourselves as an alumni group that supports first-gens beyond college graduation. If we can achieve this goal, we unlock the potential for scaling the concept of first-gen post-college support well beyond Harvard. And if we accomplish that, I believe we can leverage our unique stories, grit, and talents to build a better world—one that enables all first-gens to live up to their full potential.
  • There’s a lot to be done and we are already hard at work with a renewed focus on achieving measureable objectives. We have established the following strategic priorities for the 2017-18 school year:
  1. Continue to optimize our alumni mentorship program and share best practices with relevant organizations. With over 5 years of continuous iteration and evaluation under our belts, we have amassed enough data and best practices to leverage them across other clubs and SIGs and beyond the College.
  2. Expand the mission of FGHA to include alumni support and networking. Although we were founded as a student mentorship program, the next stage of our development will include greater support infrastructure at the alumni level, similar to other shared interest groups.
  3. Seed the idea of first-gen alumni groups at other universities to create a national network of first-gen alumni, similar to what 1vyG has done at the student level. FGHA is the first group of its kind, so we have the potential to teach other organizations in this effort.
  4. Broaden our scope to the national narrative on the first-gen experience. The focus on the first-gen is still fairly new—I remember the influx of Atlantic and NYT pieces during my junior year of college, coincidentally around the time that we founded the Harvard First Generation Student Union. However, this discourse hasn’t moved much beyond college graduation. As first-gen alumni, we know that our stories don’t end there. Moreover, we know that social mobility, while an important part of the story, is not the whole story

How you can help

  • As a member of First Generation Harvard Alumni you can contribute in a variety of ways by sharing your experiences, challenges and successes.
    • Serve on panels or attend alumni/student dinners sponsored by FGSU and give advice to small groups of interested students.
    • Participate in or organize a regional meet-up for first gen Harvard alumni.
    • Attend 1vyG at UPenn in February and join with the first gen community at 23 universities.
    • Share your personal story on the website and across other social media.
    • Follow FGHA on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date on first gen issues in the news at Harvard and throughout the US.
    • Read the newsletter and respond to requests for personal and financial support.

Toward a diverse Harvard: Opinion Piece by Dan Lobo '14

Students for Fair Admissions Inc. doesn't understand Harvard admissions

Edward Blum, an opponent of the Voting Rights Act and the founder of Students for Fair Admissions Inc. (SFFA) would like you to believe that Harvard’s holistic admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Unfortunately, as Professor David Card methodically outlines in his rebuttal for the court, this claim is based on a fundamental mischaracterization of how Harvard admissions actually works. Here’s the truth.

Harvard College exists to educate citizens and citizen-leaders for our society, through “intellectual transformation.” This intellectual transformation is achieved through a diverse living environment where “students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities.” In less esoteric terms, Harvard is an extremely diverse community, across many dimensions, where everyone is there to learn and to teach.

With a 1950 SAT score, I may have not had much to teach my peers about the SATs. But, as the son of poor, hard-working immigrants and the first and only person in my family to attend college, I did have a lot to teach my peers about the inequity in our nation’s public education system and the unbelievable luck that it takes for a student like me to make it to a school like Harvard. 

Only through a process that considers all aspects of every applicant can such an outcome be achieved. Academic and extracurricular factors are crucial, but the teaching and learning from each other goes far beyond those. Sure, Harvard could fill its class with students who have perfect GPAs and SAT scores, but it instead considers a host of factors, including difficulty of courseload, high-school profile, teacher and counselor recommendations, extracurriculars, awards, athletics, intended major, intended career, essays, socioeconomic status, race, work experience, life experience, character, geographic area, relation to Harvard alumni, faculty and staff, and interviews. For the 40,000 aspiring Harvard students in a given year (and their parents), some of these factors will be easier to benchmark than others in order to gauge one’s chances of “getting in.

No one deserves a spot at Harvard. But if you want to get in, a little advice: rather than try to game the system, build on the more quantifiable metrics with a painting of oneself that is as committed to that intellectual transformation as Harvard is. Ideally with fingers crossed. Even then, recognize it’s about more than that any one person getting in.  It is also about crafting an entire class that will optimize the intellectual transformation in a given year. With enough spots for only 5% of applicants, this admissions process means that it takes a lot more luck to get into Harvard than any applicant wants to hear.

SFFA has presented no credible evidence proving that Harvard’s holistic admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants. In fact, Harvard has maintained a steady increase in applicants across racial categories. Over the past decade, the share of the Harvard admitted class that is Asian-American has grown by 29% – from 17.6% to 22.7%. This is twice the growth rate of Hispanic admitted students, which have increased their share of the class by 12% over that same period. More importantly the plaintiffs have shown no way forward on the overarching and widely supported ideal of higher education as a path to intellectual transformation for our future citizens and citizen-leaders.

Race-blind admissions will not achieve this mission because, unlike Mr. Blum, most Harvard students actually like to talk about and teach each other about race and ethnicity. We understand that equitable progress for society is impossible without a reconciliation of existing race relations and the democratic values to which we aspire. Students can only continue this work if Harvard and other colleges are allowed look at the whole person in admissions in order to bring those voices to campus. 

There are many parts of American higher education that are broken and require greater public scrutiny and reform. Harvard admissions isn’t one of them. 

Daniel Lobo is currently a Career Education Fellow at Harvard University. He is founder of the Harvard College First-Generation Student Union and current President of the First-Generation Harvard Alumni.