For some students, going to college is a rite of passage passed down from parents. All new students face challenges in the transition to college, but for first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students, it’s a whole new world. Shannon Shipley and Anitra Persaud, both second year (MS2) students at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania know the differences firsthand.
“Growing up, I didn’t realize we were low income because it was all I knew,” Shipley said. Even when it came to knowing about SATs, MCATs and extracurricular activities, she was on her own. “I spearheaded everything. I didn’t even realize the amount of financial aid that could possibly be available to me until I applied as an undergrad.”
Last year, to help current — and future — FGLI students get the support they need, a group of medical students (Michael Perez, Cheyenne Williams, Mariam Olujide, and Jordan Harris) created Low Income and First Time Undergraduate & Medical Students of the University of Pennsylvania (LIFT US UP), also known as Penn Med FGLI. Persaud and Shipley now lead the group, which is one of many cultural affinity groups at Penn Med.
“Fostering a community among FGLI medical students is our main goal,” Shipley said
Providing a community for these students helps counter feelings of isolation and the “impostor” syndrome that FGLI students may experience, said Neha Vapiwala, MD, associate dean of admissons at Penn Med and associate professor of Radiation Oncology, the group’s faculty adviser.
“Some FGLI students may experience feelings that they don’t belong, that they don’t have all of the resources they need and thus are not as well-equipped to be in this environment,” she said. “And this self-doubt may plague them. In the first six to 12 months of school, it’s a common and potent barrier to feeling integrated, to feeling that you belong.”
Vapiwala faced similar obstacles in her own ascent to becoming a physician. She immigrated with her parents from India and, like other first generation students, did not have the “basic things” that many of her colleagues had at the time. “Many of my classmates had had physician parents with a strong command of the English language looking over every word of their applications, as well as extra tutors,” she said, noting that she realized later that her own application was inadvertently submitted with a typo. “It’s such a small detail and could happen to anyone, but I still remember and regret that all these years later. That’s the difference between having parents with know-how who can provide guidance and oversight and not having that.”
To help overcome the barrier of self-doubt, the group is working to facilitate mentorship with FGLI upperclassmen.
“It’s comforting and shows you’re not alone,” Persaud said. “Also, you see someone with your background who has made it. It’s important to have a role model like that.” In its first year, the group hosted three community dinners, including karaoke and game nights, giving the students opportunities to meet, get to know, and support each other. They also held an “Advice Panel” last spring where fourth year med students passed on useful tips on how to make it through medical school as a FGLI student, and have also reached out to FGLI students from other professional schools at Penn.
Members also want to raise awareness of challenges FGLI students face stemming from their backgrounds. As Shipley noted, while some of the med students at Penn have physicians as parents, she and Persaud are both Medicaid beneficiaries who, in the past, had trouble affording medications. Collaborating with Penn’s Latino Medical Association, they arranged a talk by a faculty member from an FGLI background to share her story and hosted members from Penn’s IMPact program – a Community Health Workers model which hires people from within local communities to provide social support, advocacy and navigation to high-risk individuals -- to discuss unique challenges faced by low-income patients.
To help get the word out about the program and encourage other FGLI students to join, last year the group began meeting with applicants on their interview day.
“Cheyenne told a student being interviewed about our group, and he was so impressed that this group even exists at Penn,” Persaud said. “None of the other places where he interviewed had anything like this.” Working with PSOM Admissions, the group provides programming for accepted FGLI students during Preview, commonly known as second look. With the administration’s support, the group has been able to connect with interviewees and prospective students personally so they can see that there is a community for them at Penn. They also support current Penn undergraduates who identify as FGLI and aspire to go to medical school.
Persaud said that challenges unique to FGLI med students extend throughout their medical school career. “As you move up the ladder, it gets harder and harder to find the recipe for success,” she said. “As a high school student, you know you have to get good grades and have hobbies -- it’s more transparent at that level. But now, some of my peers already know who to talk to or the steps needed to access, say, a great research lab. They grew up in a home where these conversations took place. Without these resources, it can become a very opaque and daunting environment.”
But, Shipley added, LIFT US UP has that covered as well. “We established a network of Penn Medicine FGLI faculty and alumni that these students can access to create a stronger, more cohesive network of support.”
To learn more about Penn Med FGLI, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Shannon.Shipley@Pennmedicine.upenn.edu.