First-Gens of Brown: Andy Pham

This past September, the Brown community celebrated the opening of the First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center (FLICenter). It is a communal, academic, and social space for members of the Brown community who identify as first-generation college/low-income.

In hopes of highlighting the support and resources students can receive from this new center, Brown Admissions sat down with each of the student coordinators who work at the FLICenter. Their work and leadership has been essential in improving the experiences and transitions of first-generation students at Brown. We hope that their stories will resonate with that of prospective students who identify with the first-generation community, and contribute to expanding the support of the first generation community on campus and beyond.

Written and photographed by Lauren Shin
Brown University Office of Admissions

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Andy is a sophomore concentrating in Ethnic Studies on the pre-med track. He originally came to Brown thinking that he would end up concentrating in Biology or Neuroscience, like many pre-med students do. However, during his first year traversing the open curriculum and finding a strong connection to the first-generation community, he developed a unique vision that personally tailors to the issues he cares about.

“The way I am thinking about crossing over pre-med and ethnic studies is focusing on racial health disparities. I am thinking about psychiatry, and I think Ethnic studies will help me understand the different kinds of disparities and how mental health is stigmatized in communities of colors. These kind of issues aren’t really discussed, such as how suicide rates are rising among young people of color. I hear about issues with Asian teenagers and young black men, and these are issues that need to be addressed.”

Outside the classroom, Andy is a First-Generation Student Coordinator for the Community team. He is also a Minority Peer Counselor, living and mentoring first year students who may need help adjusting their first year with issues related to students of color. But before Brown, navigating his identity as a first-generation student wasn’t something he thought much about until he opened up the Common App.

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“It was a fact of my life that I always had to work harder than other people around me in order to reach the same level as them…Education has always been a huge part of my life. My parents have always framed it as something that would make their lives better, make my life better, something that I needed. This idea of my parents not going to college was a big thing for me. I know it’s not necessarily big for everyone, but my life was centered on education being very important for me.”

Many people falsely assume that once the few students who are able to defy the odds and get accepted into top universities, many of their previous hardships are solved. However, being a first-generation/low-income student at a top institution often accentuates those very challenges.

“Freshman year was nothing that I expected. People always told me to go to office hours and stuff, but to me that was really, really intimidating, so I never went to office hours, ever. I never asked questions in class because I was scared about speaking out. In class, I could tell that other kids knew more than me, that they went to better high schools than me. It made me really self-conscious, so I never answered questions aloud in class. I was always doing things on my own.”

Andy also talked about the major issue of textbook expenses for low-income students, as textbooks can reach up to several hundred dollars and not be covered by financial aid. The FLICenter has worked in addressing this issue by establishing the FLIP Library, a collection of textbook donations located in the Rockefeller Library. The first-generation community has worked hard in collecting textbook donations so that students can rent them each semester.

Despite these efforts to improve resources for first-generation/low-income students, Andy emphasizes how there are still many improvements to be made. He particularly addresses how there needs to be more enforcement on making financial aid resources more transparent. Brown does offer many different resources, such as getting a laptop as part of your financial aid package, however, these are not always opportunities taken advantage of by many students.

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However, every opportunity, class, and friendship has continued to shape Andy and his college experience. What drew him to Brown was not only the freedom of the open curriculum, but also the encouragement for collaborative and non-competitive environment. The freedom of the open curriculum ultimately encourages a space in which students can immerse themselves in classes where their genuine interest in a course takes priority over doing better than their peer.

I took this great course last semester, the “Anti-Trafficking Savior Complex”. It made me rethink my concentration. I applied as Biology and Psychology, and then started thinking Neuroscience and pre-med, and now I am currently Ethnic studies and pre-med: the way I am thinking about crossing over pre-med and Ethnic Studies is focusing on racial health disparities. I am thinking about psychiatry, and I think Ethnic studies will help me understand the different kinds of disparities and how mental health is stigmatized in communities of colors. These kind of issues aren’t really discussed and how these suicide rates are rising. I hear about issues with Asian teenagers and young black men, and that’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

As a student who traversed the difficult college application process, was too intimated to go to office hours, and still sees major improvements to be made for the first generation community, Andy has found a strong community within the FLICenter and is on the way of pursuing his academic passions.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know the way I was raised, I could never ask my parents because they didn’t have that education and that’s just the way it was. I think from a lot of narratives I’ve heard, that’s also how a lot of first-generation students feel. They had to do a lot of things on their own to get here. But I think that they shouldn’t be afraid to use their resources, because they’re there and that’s for them. Come into Brown with a really open mind and try new things. This is a new slate, and you can really do anything you want here. Taking advantage of that will really help you develop your interests and find what you really love and are passionate about. Boxing yourself in will limit you and from experiencing all of the new opportunities that are here for you now.

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