Janiel Santos is a Master of Public Policy (MPP) candidate at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

Janiel Santos is a Master of Public Policy (MPP) candidate at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Sharing her experiences as a first-generation student, she encourages incoming FLI students to seek spaces and mentors that celebrate FLI identities and strengths.

Following are the highlights of our conversation:

Q. How did your affiliation with the First-generation, Lower-Income and Immigrant (FLI) community influence your field of study?

A. Even as a child, I was aware of barriers that make higher education less accessible and equitable for some communities. As the first person in my family to have access to formal education, I quickly realized that the general college student population did not share my background or identity.

Instead of devising band-aid fixes that do not have long-term impacts, I started pursuing higher-education policy to address root causes of persistent education inequalities. I do not believe that everyone wants or should be pushed into pursing a degree at a traditional 4-year University. Education has many forms and all are valuable. People should be encouraged to take their educational path into their own hands and explore alternative forms of education and be inspired to pursue other opportunities such as vocational training or similar programs. Through a policy focus, I want to ensure that post secondary institutions can respect those individuals’ choices and allow better economic mobility regardless of access to traditional education.

Q. How have you navigated the social structures at the University of Chicago as a FLI student?

A. I had an amazing mentor during my undergraduate program who asked me if I took on extra responsibilities at work as a survival tactic. I immediately realized that my identity as a first-generation student led me to believe that I had to go the extra mile to prove myself and my capabilities. Some of my peers who came from more privileged backgrounds or had more capital did not have the same sense of unease in those spaces. Now, I try to balance doing good work and scaling back to take care of myself. It is easier said than done. But, being in spaces where I do not have to explain my background or identity has allowed me to find friends and peers who want me to thrive.

Connecting with people who share my identity as a first-generation student also allows me to talk about school-related issues that are harder to discuss with family members. Communicating with people who have gone through a similar process or experience makes me feel more welcome in an elite college setting.

Q. What is one change you wish to see during your time at the university?

A. I would like to see more established spaces on campus that cater to FLI students. It is wonderful to have the FLI Network. But I wish to see more departments integrate the network as an integral and public part of the graduate student experience.

When I first came to the university, someone told me not to share my identity as a first-generation student with others because it might lead them to look down on me. As someone who is really proud of making it through college, and now, graduate school, I was shocked to hear that I should hide a major part of my identity. It is crucial for all departments to play a more active role in becoming better allies and encouraging FLI students to achieve their best potential.

Q. What has been your proudest moment so far?

A. I am proud to be pursuing my Master’s degree and affirming that I understand some advanced Calculus and Algebra. After completing Harris’ Core program, I am more confident in my quantitative skills. Moving to Chicago and starting a new life has been scary yet exciting. With everything going on in the world, I am extremely grateful for my home, family and health.

Janiel will be a panelist for the FLI Orientation Panel on Wednesday, October 7 at 1:00 PM CST. Join us to learn more about her experience and advice!

Register for the panel here