A Habitat kid teaches Harvard a thing or two

Ana Barros has a message for other low-income kids at Harvard.

We belong here. Even more than that, Harvard can learn from us.

The rising senior is founding member and president of the , formed two years ago to help undergraduate students whose parents didn’t go to college thrive at one of the country’s most prestigious institutions.

Many of the students who come wide-eyed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from all over the country also happen to be from low-income families. They are beneficiaries of a financial aid initiative that Harvard began a decade ago to remove financial barriers to an education that now runs 60,000 annually. Today, 15 percent of Harvard’s undergraduates are “first gens,” as the students call themselves.

Opening the red brick gates of Harvard to low-income kids is one thing. Creating an environment where those kids prosper academically — and maybe more important, socially — is a little trickier, as both the university and students are discovering.

“Everyone who is admitted can do the work. It’s the other stuff that can get in the way,” Ana says. “I see it as my duty to make this campus as inclusive as it can be and to challenge Harvard to live up to its mission of being a leader in socioeconomic diversity.”

To understand where Ana is coming from, it’s important to understand her roots.

She grew up in a Habitat home in Newark, New Jersey. Her Colombian parents came to the United States seeking a better life. Ana’s father, Dario, is a janitor at a school for troubled youth while her mother, Eucaris, stayed home to raise the couple’s four girls. Ana’s mom has battled health problems over the years, including breast cancer. Money was a constant stressor, Ana recalls, and there wasn’t much talk of college. “I always did well in school, but I wasn’t working toward the goal of getting into college. I didn’t know what I was working toward.”

The realm of possibility

Then Ana’s older sister Amelia applied to Harvard. “We were all so excited when she got it in because she got a full ride,” Ana says. “We had no understanding how selective or prestigious Harvard was, but just having Amelia get into college opened up that realm of possibility for the rest of us.”

Ana was admitted to Harvard early decision, as was her sister Charity, a rising sophomore. The youngest, Lisa, is in high school. “We are not pressuring her to go to Harvard, but I’m sure she feels the pressure anyway,” Ana laughs.

She isn’t so upbeat when she talks about her older sister’s college experience. “It was rough,” Ana says. “There was no support for first gen students, and she had to figure everything out herself.” Amelia, who works nearby in the mayor’s office for the City of Cambridge, graduated from Harvard in 2012. Ana painfully recalls that her family could not afford to buy Amelia’s senior pictures. “A lot of the stuff I do, I do with Amelia in mind,” Ana says.

As a sociology major focusing on urban poverty, Ana has made a conscious decision not to run from her background but to learn from it and smooth the path for other low-income kids. The Harvard College First Generation Student Union was formed as a response to the overwhelming silence of first gen students who, Ana says, may be reluctant to speak up because they feel inferior academically or are ashamed of their modest backgrounds.

“Of course, it was difficult to say, ‘I am low-income,’” Ana says. “If you think about it, you realize there is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, there is so much to be proud of. Many first generation students were able to get in to this highly selective school without going to a boarding school, without SAT prep courses, without tutors. And there are things that we have to offer.”

When asked what, Ana doesn’t hesitate.

“Empathy. We are more connected to people who are less privileged because we understand that at a personal level. Emotional intelligence. Resilience. We fought to be here. That’s says something about character. We don’t talk about these things enough. We are enriching our campus.”

A bridge between two worlds

The Harvard College First Generation Student Union has quickly become more than a student group. In two short years, it has become a powerful voice for institutional change.

Among the changes: Harvard’s undergraduate admissions office now has two student liaison positions doing outreach to first generation students. This past spring, several dining halls remained open to serve students who could not afford to leave campus during break.

“The administration has been supportive of our efforts — they know there is a need,” Ana says. “It is important to note that Harvard is an institution, and as one, it moves slowly. The fact that we were able to do the things that we have done is incredible.”

Ana is not sure what she will do after she graduates. She does know that she will build on the work that she is so passionate about. She calls herself a bridge. “That is what I am, between two very, very different worlds.

“I bring my lived experiences as a poor person with the academic knowledge that I have been given by being able to study at Harvard. The two are necessary to effect change. That is what I hope to do.”