A group photo of Carter with several other FGLI-identifying students. They are standing in front of a cloudy sky with Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco in the distance.

One thing that I certainly wasn’t prepared for when I got Northwestern was how important my social identities would become. I think it’s true of a lot of high school experiences that conversations revolving around differences don’t happen very often (at least they didn’t for Carter, the high schooler). That is in part why Wildcat Welcome has, and continues to be, my favorite part of Northwestern. It’s a week-long crash course in how to engage in dialogues about the ethnic, socioeconomic, and other personal identities you hold and where they intersect with the people around you. What’s been really interesting is just how much I’ve explored my identities as a low-income and first-generation college student in my last two years at Northwestern. I didn’t think it was a defining part of my high school experience, but it’s definitely become a defining part of my college one!

I went to a low-income public high school where free and reduced lunch was assumed; I didn’t know how different a space like Northwestern is. Some students walk to class with the newest Macbooks and jackets that were worth more than my car. Some students had the privilege to go out to eat every weekend; I lived for the meal plan because it meant I always had food. The campus itself alone is worth more money than I had even fathomed – and that’s not even including the cost of attendance! I soon realized how important it was going to be to surround myself with people who understood what it meant to be a work-study student around your class schedule, to prefer staying in to going out to save money. For me, I found that community in the Northwestern Quest Scholars Network.

I consider myself SUPER lucky to have been admitted as a Quest+ Scholar all those years ago. Having that network of students already built from the get-go was invaluable to starting my Northwestern experience off on the right foot. Being a part of QuestBridge led me directly Northwestern’s Student Enrichment Services (SES) office; they provided great resources like winter gear and textbook assistance. SES connected me with the various ways that you can apply for additional funds outside of my financial aid package: from the Student Enrichment Fund to the Essential Needs Financial Aid application, SES helped defer a huge chunk of finances that I was often concerned about.

Where being first-gen, low-income (FGLI) on this campus truly shined, however, was through the people I’ve been able to meet along the way! The professional staff – Kourtney Cockrell and Sharitza Rivera with SES especially – whose job it is to help FGLI students navigate their university experience truly care about everything you’re up to. You get to meet people who truly are going through similar college experiences and are struggling with the same things. Whether it’s a financial literacy course or a free dinner, there are always people on your side!

What truly underscored how connected the Northwestern FGLI community was an opportunity I had this summer. QuestBridge hosted QB25, a massive conference in San Francisco that celebrated 25 years of the nonprofit helping first-gen and low-income students get into higher education. Every Northwestern Quest Scholar got the invite and we quickly hit the group chats and Facebook pages to book flights and meet on-campus before we met off-campus. The trip was all-inclusive and invited Quest+ scholars and alums from all over the country to attend workshops on everything from imposter syndrome to supporting your family at home. I didn’t expect it, but Northwestern had the largest group of students at the conference by far. I got a chance to see friends I didn’t realize were also low-income and we got to spend time together away from the academic environment of Northwestern. We commiserated on the prices of the BART and the crazy Teslas you see on the hills of San Fran; on our day off, we gathered as a small army and descended the tourist sites of the city.

If you had asked me two years ago if I’d be on the West Coast, my answer would have been a resounding “no (like, how was that going to ever happen?).” Ultimately, San Francisco and the FGLI community was a HUGE part of my summer experience. I made new friends across the country at other schools and came back to Northwestern feeling closer to a community than I ever had before. Through all of the dialogues and support at Northwestern, I’ve come to accept this identity I hold as a strength, not a barrier. I wouldn’t change it for the world!

This blog post was originally written while I was employed by the Office of Undergraduate Admission at Northwestern University. As such, my voice and tone reflect Northwestern’s desired impact, not my own.