Removing Barriers to Access

Natalie HigginsIt wasn’t until I was in my second semester of college at UMass Amherst that I discovered being a first generation college student was an identity. Now, I was very proud to be the first in my family to attend college and knew it was an important accomplishment. But I wasn’t aware of the wealth of resources available for “first gen” students, or that I could find a community that understood my struggles navigating the structures of higher education.

Instead, my family and I waded through the college application and financial aid process, and ultimately had major issues filling out the FAFSA (financial aid form). Once on campus, I immediately began identifying mentors who could help me navigate through UMass Amherst. Thanks to a lot of support, I was able to finish my bachelor’s degree in three years, shaving off $17,000 of the cost and graduating debt free. My time at UMass Amherst opened so many doors, including working in the sexual violence prevention movement, which introduced me to community organizing, and even being able to attend law school, a huge feat for a first-gen college student.

I joined PHENOM (the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts) as their Executive Director last August. PHENOM has a unique mission to advocate for more accessible and affordable, quality public higher education in Massachusetts by uniting students, staff, faculty, alumni, administrators, and the general community. This is never an easy task, as each of these groups has their own ideas of how access, affordability, and quality work together in higher education. But it is essential we unite as many interested parties as possible to ensure the state commits to providing residents of Massachusetts fully-funded public higher education. Because I recognize the number of doors UMass Amherst opened for me, and how increasingly inaccessible public higher education is becoming with continued state disinvestment, I knew I had to work with PHENOM to reverse these trends.

As PHENOM focuses on coalition-building, we are thrilled to be partnering with the Massachusetts Teachers Association to offer stipends to PHENOM Campus Chapter Organizers on eight public campuses. Together a Staff or Faculty Organizer and a Student Organizer will engage their peers in advocacy and educational campaigns to challenge the lack of state support for public higher education in the Commonwealth. As we build and develop these campus chapters, we are increasing our capacity to advocate for more affordable and accessible, quality public higher education in the Commonwealth.

I was thrilled to find out about Class Action’s Annual First Gen Summit. Since PHENOM focuses on affordability and access barriers in public higher education, it was the perfect event to support. I believe it is essential we bring students together and support them as they develop and tell their story, as stories are some of the most powerful tools in organizing and advocacy. We were thrilled to meet students and staff from state colleges, and look forward to working with Class Action in the future to engage more public college and university students. As our public campuses have a significant proportion of low-income, minority, and first-gen student populations, PHENOM is excited to continue to collaborate with Class Action and support its work to end classism in our communities.

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