To increase visibility, share advice and highlight successes of the First-generation, Lower-income, and Immigrant UChicago community members


Brodwyn Fisher

Professor Brodwyn Fisher is the Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago

Professor Brodwyn Fisher, Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago, ventured into academia with a cynicism of its elitist culture. Reflecting on her journey as a first-generation and lower-income student, she shares her story of leveraging personal experiences into professional 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 choice of profession?

A. I grew up in a poor, White family in the Pacific Northwest but devoted my career to studying and teaching about Brazil and Latin America. Yet, my childhood influenced my work in many ways;  I was 13 years old, working as a fruit picker in Eugene, Oregon, when I first met someone from Latin America.  Three years later, I got the opportunity to attend college at a time when Central and Latin America were in the news due to the wars in the 1980s and 1990s. I was always interested in issues of social justice because of my socio-economic background; my family got evicted a lot and we did not have bank accounts or credit cards. Around that time, I also realized my love for history and chose to focus my research on issues of poverty and inequality in Latin America.

However, in college I found myself reading books that portrayed poverty the way middle class-US Americans imagined it. This conception was different from my experience as a child of a single parent with unstable employment and from evidence coming out of countries like Mexico or Brazil. Reflecting on my childhood, I realized that I wanted to document the “informal sector,” which is highly correlated with poverty and involves the kind of work and housing that is outside of the realm of state protection and regulation. Informality is not the same as illegality; it simply involves people trying to make their basic lives better one generation after another without any help from government. Despite its importance, informality was never something that historians had thought about seriously. I knew to ask original questions about informality because I grew up living a similar reality and that became my strength. 

Q. As a student, what did you look for in a mentor?

A. Mentorship has been extremely instrumental in my career, but I have never been mentored by someone who grew up like me. As a student, I only had two female professors and neither of them were in my field; I never had a professor or mentor who had grown up poor. I also lacked peer mentors who shared my experiences.  I was expected to fit in because I was White. But I did not know the norms of middle-class White culture. There were no formal mentoring structures that allowed people to come together and think through the experience of poverty as something that people across racial or ethnic divides had in common.

         Certainly, you can find mentors who do not share your experiences. I was fortunate to find individuals who valued me. One of my mentors was someone who grew up in Oklahoma, came from a more stable socio-economic background than me, but understood what it felt to be a fish out of water. You can find bits and pieces of affiliation and looking for mentorship in places where you do not expect it can be beneficial.

Q. What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

A. It is important to give a lot of thought to what you want in life. People come from different cultures and we may define success differently. Is success getting a degree, making money, or staying true to your roots? When people come from a family with college-educated members, there is a lot more agreement about what success is supposed to look like. For many members of the FLI community, success may look different. Even if you are doing just as well as your peers, you may have more family responsibilities. Certainly, instead of getting help from your support system, you may have to help them.

Also, give yourself a break. Sometimes, FLI students struggle with anxiety because they cannot decide how they should stay true to their background and upbringing, how much they owe their family, or how free they are to chart their own path. It might seem like a luxury, but you need to give yourself room to think about who you are and what you want to do. It is really important to create your space, otherwise you can easily wear yourself out. You need more purpose in life than living up to other people’s expectations of you.

Q. What has been your proudest moment?

A. I am proud that my partner and I have built a stable household for our children;  they have more choices than I did, and are more secure knowing that someone will be able to catch them if they fall.

 I am also proud that I try – in my family and in my classroom – to transmit some of the ideas that formed me. I grew up in a family where intelligence was not measured by institutional approval or wealth. There was a strong sense that smartness was not a function of the social world you lived in, and that there was something wrong if you believed that formal education or money – alone — made you special. We thought that we were stronger because managed to read, think and engage the world even when we did not have a lot of help. Universities are in the business of formal education, but I think we do our work better when we recognize the difference between value and privilege.

Cassidy Wade

Cassidy Wade is a Health Educator at University of Chicago Health Promotion and Wellness

Cassidy Wade, a Health Educator at University of Chicago Health Promotion and Wellness, emphasizes the importance of providing a respectful forum for individuals to share their experiences and identity. She defines her journey from a victim to a victor and strives to help students appreciate their own potential for self-care and resilience. 

Following are the highlights of our conversation:

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

A.  During my undergraduate program at Purdue University, I identified as a first-generation and lower-income student. When you are in college, you meet peers from many backgrounds who talk about their experiences, travel adventures, and accomplishments. I did not know how to join in these conversations because I did not have those stories. Sometimes, when my friends would make plans, I could not join because I did not have the money. It hurt me the most when students would talk about the environments they grew up in. As a child, I did not have stability and safety. It was hard for me to hear people talk about how well they were loved and sometimes it made me jealous. But, it all pushed me to be a better person and to redefine my path.

Q. As a student,  what helped you navigate social structures?

A. I am grateful that I was able to attend school and get a job to ease some financial barriers I faced. I know that many students do not have that opportunity. I was also lucky to have friends who were empathetic. They did not come from the same economic background as I did, but they listened to me and made plans that involved me. For example, instead of going out, we would stay in and watch a movie. It was little things that made me feel like I was a part of a community that cared about me.

Q. What steps can the UChicago community take to better support FLI members?

A.  In my experience, scholarships for tuition were extremely helpful and I could not have attended college without them. But, it is important to acknowledge that scholarships do not solve the problem completely. We need more gatherings that allow FLI students to feel like they are heard and seen as important members of our community.

During my undergraduate program, having a mentor who helped me throughout my four years at the university, provided me with a sense of stability. I could talk to her and laugh about the social structures that inhibited me and my growth. I think similar programs are very important for students. Having a mentor makes you realize that you are not alone, and sometimes that is all you need to hear. This is one of the main reasons that I want to be involved with the FLI Network. I know that it can get really tough, but even one supporter can make a difference. 

Q. Would you be comfortable sharing the greatest struggle you faced as a college student? What helped you overcome that challenge? 

A. In my Junior year, I slipped into depression and dropped out of school for a semester. I was so overwhelmed, that I struggled to even wake up, much less to attend class. Depression looks and feels different for everyone, and people have different coping mechanisms. I was smart and ambitious, but it took me time to realize that I needed help to get out of the mental state I was in. Eventually, I went to a counselor and tried to talk to some friends. They helped me use proper coping mechanisms to achieve my goals and not stand in my own way to success.

During this time, compassionate professors who understood my trauma were a blessing. For instance, one day I decided not to give an online exam, which was almost 30% of my grade. At the time, I had not been diagnosed for depression. I emailed my professor and told her that I felt down. She did not ask me for paperwork or any formal letters. She allowed me to take the exam at a later date. She understood that I was a human being and she showed me that I could be vulnerable with my story. I am grateful for people who acknowledge that just because we are in the same place, at the same institution, does not mean that we all have the same experiences.

Q. What has been your proudest moment?

A. My mother was an extremely influential person in my life because she always encouraged me to make better choices than her. She is a single mother, but she created space for me to succeed and I was able to use her life as a springboard for my own success. She taught me to rebound from trauma and learning that skill has been one of the most important things for me.

Last year, after I graduated with my Master of Public Health from the University of South Carolina, I was anxious to get a job. Sometimes, I do not believe that I have made it so far; I can work at an elite institution and make a meaningful contribution to the campus community. My proudest moments have been the ones where I have overcome all the challenges thrown at me. With the help of my community, I have realized the resilience in my power. I got a Master’s degree and I don’t have to worry about my next meal anymore. That’s been a long journey to financial stability, I am pushing further away from my trauma and I am becoming more than a low-income, Black girl from Northwest Indiana. I think that is something that I am proud of and that makes me happy. 


Sadia Sindhu


Sadia Sindhu is the Executive Director of the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

Sadia Sindhu is the Executive Director of the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. She highlights the importance of investing in people and creating environments that allow individuals to place their identities at the forefront of their personal and professional lives.

Following are the highlights of our conversation:

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

A. I am the daughter of Pakistani and Kashmiri immigrants who worked extremely hard to invest in me and my brothers. I graduated as valedictorian of my high school class. Yet, when I started my undergraduate program at Georgetown University, I found it difficult to navigate the academic and social circles of an elite private university. During that time, I found support in affinity groups and faculty mentors, who continue to influence my personal and professional choices.

In my current role at the Harris School of Public Policy, I place my identity at the forefront of my work. At the Center for Effective Government, we investigate issues of political dysfunction and think about institutional reform. But to facilitate any form of meaningful institutional change, we need to be inclusive. Inclusivity is fundamental to functional governance. It is not possible to develop effective solutions in a silo. My identity enables me to be more empathetic and makes me a better Executive Director. It is critical for me to show up as who I am.

Q. How did you navigate spaces that were not necessarily built for you?

A. Prior to launching the Center for Effective Government, I was the Director of the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA), now housed in the Center. CLA is a leadership development program for government and nonprofit officials based in Chicago. Leading an important University of Chicago program was daunting, but it helped me realize that I can successfully navigate spaces that were not necessarily built for someone like me. Most of us own this power, but we need to practice recognizing and leveraging it.

It is also important to build a community that views and values your identity as a strength. You need people who believe in you and constantly remind you that you were chosen to be a part of the endeavor for a reason and your role creates value that would not be there otherwise. When I chose to come to the University of Chicago, I did not just choose a job; I chose an institution. I am very fortunate because my boss, Prof. William Howell, and my colleagues empower me to occupy spaces that I did not think were created for me. This is my dream job because I have been empowered by peers and colleagues to show up as my full self – not a reflection of others’ expectations – and to play a role in policy work that impacts all of us.

Q. What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

A. First, it is important to recognize that no one else has your exact lived experience. It took me long to realize, but being a FLI student was an incredible opportunity because for the most part, I spent my life occupying spaces that were not necessarily built for me. Having seen them from a wholly new perspective, I now have an opportunity to shape the future of these places.

Secondly, I wish that I had spent more time finding spaces and people that celebrate all aspects of my lived experience. I hope that students are able to find such spaces, especially when searching for jobs. It is important to find mentors and to keep in touch with them. There are a ton of people who care about making the world a better place. Build relationships with peers and mentors because they might open doors that you could have never dreamt of otherwise. Admission to the University of Chicago is extremely hard and you were all intentionally selected to be here. Own your accomplishments and potential. No one can take that away from you.

Q. What steps can the UChicago community take to better support FLI members?

A. When I was an undergraduate student, one of my mentors, Dr. Dan Porterfield, influenced my outlook on empathy and compassion. As a faculty member and administrator, Dr. Porterfield was committed to building greater support systems for students. I strive to be a higher-ed professional like him. I believe that students should have spaces and individuals that they can lean on to support them throughout their college experience. Consistently hosting informal and formal support programs is important. We need departments to continue initiatives like the FLI Network. We have extraordinary peers and students to lean on and learn from. We need to find ways to encourage our personal and professional growth as a community. 

I think of myself as someone who wants to change large institutions. It is a herculean task; it is difficult work and there is no immediate gratification. But, I am empowered by people around me to not lose hope or drive. My identity lies at the heart of my work. But it takes the best of all of us – the faculty, staff, researchers, students, and the broader campus community – to create a change in our community. We need to work together and we need to advocate for each other.

Q. What has been your proudest moment?

A. I would like to highlight two moments. Professionally, being asked by Prof. Howell to launch the Center for Effective Government with him was a huge moment of gratitude for me. This is an important initiative at a critical moment in our nation’s history when our institutions are enduring a stress test greater than many of us have ever seen. I am deeply humbled by the ambition of our center.

A few years ago, I was elected to the national executive board of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which was another humbling moment. MPAC is our nation’s oldest American Muslim advocacy organization. Two years into my tenure, I was asked to chair our policy committee. Working with MPAC, and knowing of the good we do, brings me a lot of joy. I have learned from and met some amazing powerhouse Muslim leaders. In moments when it all seems to be too much, and I start to experience imposter syndrome, the Center and MPAC remind me of the value I add.


Anastasia Giannakidou

Professor Anastasia Giannakidou strives to create a sense of belonging for students and peers by championing multilingualism and auditory diversity and inclusion. A Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies at the University of Chicago, Giannakidou shares her stories of sacrifice, struggle, and success to inspire fellow members of the FLI community.

Following are highlights of our conversation: 

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

      A. My parents came to Greece as refugees from Turkey and the Soviet Union. I was born in a small town on the foot of Mt. Olympus that was close to Thessaloniki. My family spoke a different dialect of Greek, called Pontic Greek. As a student, I came to love languages and linguistics. I studied Greek at the University of Thessaloniki. When I was 25 years old, I went to the Netherlands to pursue a PhD in philosophy of language and linguistics.

Q. What was the greatest struggle that you faced as a student? What helped you overcome that challenge? 

      A. While the Netherlands was a very hospitable and welcoming place, sometimes I experienced a feeling of not belonging. Due to differences in language and cultural backgrounds, this feeling holds for many of the international students here as well. Immigrant students are aware of how they sound and the potential bias that comes along with having an accent. When we talk about diversity, we tend to talk about the way people look, not the way people sound. But for many of us with an accent, bias and prejudice are very real. We experience it regularly, sometimes in benign ways. When I speak with a non-native accent – which is not a choice- even as an accomplished scholar, I see that people are reluctant to listen the way they would to a native speaker. Auditory diversity is often overlooked.

Q. What advice would you give to your 20 year old self?

      A. When you are 20 years old, you are very enthusiastic. At the same time, you are also scared. A lot of immigrant students come from a place of humility, probably because they had to give something up when they decided to come here. Moving away to join the College or pursue graduate study is always a big change. But international students also have to give up their country and their familiar ways. My advice would be to not feel inferior because the new place does not feel like home yet. Maybe one feels like a guest in a foreign country.  But, try to understand the culture around you and try to integrate, while at the same time, be proud of your own heritage. Try to be positive and in doing so you will learn to assert yourself for who you are. Slowly, you will learn to view your differences as advantages— such changes are not going to be wholesale, but gradual.

Q. What steps can the UChicago community take to better support FLI members?

A. I always advocate in favor of more language support for our students. Students should have free coaching to improve their accents or their linguistic performance. They should also have more cultural support in the form of events that are held systematically and consistently. For example, Doc films can pick a new country every month and screen a movie from that region. Other student organizations, such as the Maroon, can publish more articles focused on the experiences of international students. In terms of curriculum and research, we need to study bilingualism as an academic field more systematically at this University. Right now, the lack of systematic bilingual studies is an embarrassment because we are a very international community at the College and the Lab School. Students and faculty of accent bring diverse cultural experiences that deserve to be studied and appreciated.  

Q. What has been your proudest moment?

      A. Personally, my greatest successes are my children. I really want to emphasize that you do not have to choose between career or family. You can have both. Having children helped my career because it made me use time more efficiently. Professionally, I have a lot of proud moments. One of them was defending my PhD thesis in Dutch because I learnt Dutch in the four years that it took me to complete my PhD. Completing my PhD was also the moment that I asserted myself as an independent researcher. Another proud moment was when I started advising my own students. Advising is very important because it is an opportunity to help your students grow; to help them become independent scholars and even to argue against you. My students are my intellectual children and I care for them deeply. 

Paul Maurizio

Paul Maurizio is a Postdoctoral Scholar, Section in Genetic Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago

Paul Maurizio is a Postdoctoral Scholar studying genomic regulation of the immune system at the University of Chicago. He advocates for improved mental health resources for graduate students and discusses his journey of navigating power structures and academic challenges as a first-generation student.

Following are the highlights of our conversation: 

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

      A. Growing up, I went to a good public school, got into the college of my choice, and worked every summer during my undergraduate program. Despite these experiences, being a first-generation student presented many challenges. As I was navigating applications for my Masters and PhD programs, I did not have a lot of direct guidance. I took inspiration from books, including stories of doctors and scientists who fought infectious diseases through research. At first, I did not think that I had competitive grades, I doubted my skills, and I did not know the career steps for becoming a research scientist. Over time, I learned some of these things from my mentors and peers. But, I also had to adjust expectations of my family members and explain when I would get my first “real job”. I am still training as a postdoctoral scholar, so in a way, I have not gotten my first “real” job yet.

Q. What steps could the community have taken to better support you?

      A. During my undergraduate career, I took leadership roles in many student organizations. But, during my graduate program, it was mostly nose to the ground, trying to get work done. The last years of my PhD were especially challenging because of the political climate in the US and the sudden loss of my father. Around that time, I found Asian-American and first-generation graduate student groups that made me feel a bit at home. I could identify with many of the issues that students discussed. The two affinity groups helped me maintain a sense of balance and helped me process what graduate school was doing to me.

       Over time, I have also come to understand that policy for supporting FLI students is partly a national issue. The notices and definitions issued by the federal government and funding agencies have a tangible impact on students in labs and research settings around the country. There are probably a lot of scenarios that do not fit formal definitions or guidelines. I believe that all students should be plugged into mental health services from the start of their programs. It has become clear that graduate students need to have a strong mental health safety net. Institutions and local communities should be responsible for making this happen for every student well before they face a major crisis.

Q. How has a mentor or peer influenced your professional or personal journey?

      A. A number of professors and mentors have given me important feedback for my career. Sometimes, I have felt uncomfortable discussing my identity or background because it seemed like I was outing or labelling myself. After spending years in academia, succeeding through graduate programs and lab work, I felt that I should be able to perform just as well as anyone else regardless of my background. The mentorship structures helped me navigate through the “imposter syndrome” that I have faced. I also found it helpful to vocalize some of my economic, mental and structural barriers. I try to use my experiences to encourage current students and trainees through their challenges. 

 Q. What advice do you have for students experiencing Imposter Syndrome?

      A. Imposter syndrome is similar to having an overly critical friend who shares their unwanted opinion way too much. No matter what I might achieve, I may never have a complete sense of accomplishment and success. There is often a feeling of anxiety and doubt, of questioning your research and the value of your contributions. Sometimes, you need helpful mantras to get you through a day. You need things to reassert yourself and to remind yourself why you are working so hard. I want to emphasize again that as institutions, we need to destigmatize conversations around mental health. We should provide more resources for students and continue researching effective solutions. 

Q. What has been your proudest moment?

      A. When my son was four years old, he came to my PhD commencement ceremony.  He saw it as sort of a mysteriously magical event, with marches, costumes, and music—the moment “Dad” became a “doctor”. Not every graduate student decides to walk. But I decided to go through with it, partly because I wanted to invite my mom and wife to celebrate their roles in my education and career. Graduation ceremonies are important for families that have contributed a lot of resources and time. Every family makes sacrifices. Commencement ceremonies seem  particularly meaningful to FLI students. I regret that this year many students may miss out on having in person graduation ceremonies, but I hope they can have real celebrations with friends and family in the future.

      I have another small, but proud moment as a scientist, mostly because it can be quite rare to get feedback on things you have done well. Right before pursuing my PhD, I spent a year as a visiting researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Years after I left, I caught up with one of the graduate students there. He mentioned that he really appreciated my lab notebook because my detailed notes helped him a lot during his graduate program. This comment made me realize that what you bring to an environment as an academic, the energy you bring as a person and the things you leave behind can have an enduring impact, long after you are gone. 

Jessica Donada (A.M. ’20) is an advanced standing Social Work student with a concentration in Administration at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

Jessica Donada’s Letter to the FLI Community

Thank YOU for being here. As first-generation, lower-income, immigrant students, we face unique challenges that other university students don’t. From filling out the FAFSA ourselves – because our parents can’t read English or have never filled one out – to visiting college alone –  because our parents couldn’t take off work, we had to learn to exist as a FLI student at UChicago. I want you to know that you are seen, and your hard work is noticed.

As an Advanced Standing School of Social Service Administration Master’s student, I was only a part of the University for one year, less than that in person as COVID-19 hit. Juggling my coursework, social work field placement, and part time job—all in different parts of the city, commuting 1.5 hours each way to campus didn’t allow me to take part in any of the Center for Identity and Inclusion’s resources or events for FLI students. However knowing that they existed, simply through their newsletters, I believed that they were there for me if I needed. It was reassuring. My story may resonate with you, but if I could go back and attend an event for FLI students, I would. I hope you will get a chance to attend at least one too. Even if I wasn’t able to attend those events, having a good group of friends who shared the same background and struggles as me was essential; knowing that I was not the only one struggling with situations unique to FLI students was incredibly helpful in the times that I felt like I didn’t belong, that I wanted to quit, that I was going to fail.

If you could take away one thing from my letter is that you DO belong at the University of Chicago. I had to continually remind myself of that every time I stepped off the #2 bus in front of SSA’s building. When I was applying for a Master’s programs, I couldn’t even fathom being at this University. My mother sat with me as I completed the application and wrote and rewrote my statements. When I was accepted, she told me, “You see, you do belong, mija.”