Supporting First-Generation and Low-Income Students

The medical school experience is universally demanding, but students who are the first in their family to go to college and low-income students have additional, sometimes hidden, challenges, many of which are especially apparent at an Ivy League medical school.

With that in mind, the First-Generation and Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) aims to build community among first-generation and low-income—FLI—students, residents, and attendings. The student-run organization is sponsored by the VP&S Club and the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. It facilitates workshops, social events, panel discussions, and mentorship opportunities to address the disparities faced by FLI students.

“A lot of our classmates’ parents are doctors, and even though we have the same seat at the same medical school, it’s hard to imagine how different our journeys might be. We all wonder how our path might be different if we had that kind of figure in our lives,” says Megan Chung, a second-year student, first-generation student, and current president of FLIP.

For Ms. Chung and the group’s nearly 70 members, FLIP has helped level the playing field for students at VP&S by demystifying the medical school experience, including helping students understand the unique language of medicine that students who come from long lines of doctors have been exposed to throughout their lives.

“We really want to focus on the hidden curriculum,” says second-year student Shivem Shah, vice president of FLIP. The hidden curriculum refers to the academic requirements and implicit social rules of higher learning—those unwritten mores and expectations of academia and college life—that are often foreign to first-generation students.

“Students who have family members who are doctors or just have a stronger exposure to the field already know so much—they knew this language when they arrived,” Mr. Shah says. “But that was completely foreign to many FLI students, so having those conversations amongst ourselves has been very important. It allows us to talk about imposter syndrome, to talk about our fears, and find a sense of community and the resources we need to catch up and be prepared.” 

The group also helps FLI students navigate financial aid, share advice, and find resources. Earlier this year, FLIP helped dozens of students apply for funding through the CARES act, which VP&S distributed based on financial need.

“Columbia’s Financial Aid Office is really generous, and that aid has allowed us to be in this space, but we still don’t have the same capacity to socialize as our classmates,” Mr. Shah says. “Spending money is harder to come by when you’re truly living on a budget. That can be inherently limiting at an Ivy League school, especially in a city like New York.

“Talking about those issues can feel taboo, or like something you don’t want to bring up because it can feel embarrassing, even if it shouldn’t be. I’ve had a lot of FLI members come up to me when we host socials and say, ‘It’s so nice to have someone that gets it. It’s so nice to be part of a community where we can talk about it and to have a space where we can socialize without the constraints that our upbringing may provide us.’” 

As part of a new pilot program, FLIP is recruiting faculty members to serve as mentors to FLI students. Diversity and Multicultural Affairs helped build a database of FLI-identifying faculty who are available to mentor. FLIP matches students with faculty members based on shared interests, backgrounds, or specialties. 

This fall, the group welcomed three official faculty advisors: Hilda Hutcherson, MD, senior associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs and professor of obstetrics & gynecology; Mara Minguez, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at VP&S and of population and family health at the Mailman School of Public Health; and Paulette Bernd, PhD, professor of pathology & cell biology and director of the clinical gross anatomy course and the anatomical donor program. 

“I heard about this group and immediately felt connected to them,” says Dr. Bernd, herself a first-generation college graduate from Washington Heights. “I didn’t have the kind of help you might have from parents who know more about navigating college. As a student, I felt out of place. I felt like I didn’t belong with all these other rich kids whose parents were all doctors and who came up through the ranks in a very different way than I did.”

Through the first-year gross anatomy course, Dr. Bernd was already a familiar face and a source of support for many first-year students. Her new work with FLIP feels like a natural extension of her role as a first-year mentor. 

“Some of the work is just emotional support, to validate them and to make them feel like they do belong here and that they’re as good as everyone else,” she says. “It’s important for them to hear. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t really good.”

Dr. Bernd and other faculty participated in welcome dinners for the first-year students this fall. She also regularly takes first-year students to ballet performances as a way of acclimating them to the city and making them feel welcome. For many students, these evenings are the first time they have attended a dinner party or a performance.

“The typical Columbia med student is so privileged,” says Dr. Bernd, “but nowadays, a larger and larger percentage of the class is less so, given Dr. Vagelos’ generosity in providing scholarships that replace loans. More and more students can come to VP&S, students who might not have ever been able to before. It’s great.”

FLI students are eager to express their gratitude for the generosity of VP&S donors and faculty for scholarship support and mentorship alike. FLIP members are paying that generosity forward with downstream mentoring of their own. 

“So many members of this community are incredibly generous. They’re not only seeking mentorship, but looking for ways to be mentors as well,” Mr. Shah says. The group has reached out to several local high school organizations and the Columbia undergraduate FLI chapter to organize mentoring programs for students interested in medical school.

“If they’re interested in med school, we really want to give them the all-access pass,” Mr. Shah says. “We want to give them everything they need to understand what it takes to get here and succeed as a Columbia med student.”

Danny McAlindon