In Conversation with Dan Lobo ’14, Founder of Harvard's First-Generation Student Union
This week, the Harvard First Generation Program (HFGP) sat down with Dan Lobo, founder of the Harvard College First-Generation Student Union and President of the First-Generation Harvard Alumni. The Social Studies Concentrator and Quincy House alum is back this year at the Office of Career Services as a Career Educator Fellow advising students in the fields of business and entrepreneurship and working on diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus.
HFGP: Tell us about your experience as a first-gen student and how that motivated you while you were an undergraduate student and beyond.
DL: My experience as a first-gen on campus was a bit of a roller coaster, just because of the difference between how it started and how it ended. When I first came in to campus I just remember feeling very disempowered around my first-gen background, in fact I didn’t even really know that I was first-gen. I knew that I was poor and I knew that my parents hadn’t gone to college, but at the time that wasn’t part of Harvard’s vernacular at all. No one was talking about “first-gen,” that word wasn’t being used anywhere. So I just started noticing things, right? Like I started noticing that a lot of my peers were extremely wealthy, which is not something I was used to being around at all, just given my background, and I also noticed that there were a lot of moments that made me feel like my background was not something that I should be celebrating, really not something that I should be at all open about.
In particular, I remember during Opening Days, you’re sort of giving people your spiel, where you’re from, etc. and I’m actually a twin but my twin didn’t go to college. He went to a vocational high school and didn’t pursue any education afterwards. I would tell people that I was a twin and the immediate question would be “Oh, does he go here?” and then I would be like “No, he doesn’t go to college” and it would instantly become super awkward. I was finding that a lot of my peers just didn’t know how to sort of reconcile that, the fact that I could be so different from the people back home. It’s a funny story now that a lot of my closest friends from Harvard still don’t know that I’m a twin, because I really learned to not talk about it here. And that was sort of emblematic of like my first two years on campus, I just generally remember feeling like I was learning so much and had so much to learn, but I didn’t really feel like I had a ton to contribute back to the community, which was personally very difficult because I think what makes Harvard so special is that it is a place where you’re not only here to learn but you’re also here to teach about your perspective. And so it just felt like a sort of one way relationship for the first half of my experience, which just didn’t feel very good.
That started to change when I had a freshman advisor who works at the Bureau of Study Council and I actually, I didn’t know at the time, but she requested to work with a first-gen, low income student every year. I really didn’t connect with a ton of my advisors except for this one and she really became my therapist. I told her things that I really didn’t tell anybody else on campus and so she knew the most about me of anyone. She told me she wanted me to meet a couple of people she had worked with, and it was my two really close friends Cherone and Nelida. Cherone is from rural Ireland and Nelida is from the South Side of Chicago, so this was the first time we were meeting. We met in Winthrop Dhall and it was really the first time I had this really powerful connecting experience with people who understood what I was going through. It was little things like “I hate when my roommates assume I can just pitch in on a piece of furniture without asking me” or like, little things that there was no space to vent those frustrations and so we were doing that at the dinner table and it was just a very powerful moment. I remember in that moment having this idea of, like, I think this is a really important thing and I think it should happen on a larger scale. I was wondering, how many of us are there on campus? There was some overlap with certain affinity groups, but there was no way to sort of identify yourself as first-gen up to this point. Around that time I decided that I wanted to start a group for first-generation students on campus and Nelida and Cherone helped me in that effort.
By the time senior year came around we got the group officially recognized and it really took off. We sort of did a very guerilla marketing campaign among the houses to let them know this is a thing and people just reacted very strongly because I think there was a large demand for this. I’m also really proud that it inspired a lot of greater institutional support from the university, because I had thought that the university didn’t think about this population very much but when I started this organizing effort around this group I actually found out that they had been talking about first-gen, low income students for awhile but they didn’t really know what to do because they didn’t have any student voice in those discussions. There was this idea of like - I kept on hearing this work “stigmatizing” a lot. They were worried that taking certain actions would stigmatize this population and it really took our voice to say “you’re not stigmatizing us, by giving us more support you’re enabling us to be the amazing members of this community that we can be.” I think that really, it speaks to why this movement has picked up so quickly and I’m really happy to see how with the First-Gen Program, with you guys [HFGP] working, none of this was here five years ago.
It’s funny to think how disempowered I was around being a first-gen in college because my experience post-college has been the exact opposite. My first-gen identity has been one of my greatest competitive advantages because I continue to occupy spaces where no one else is really like me. I worked at a consulting firm that was all white people who had attended elite schools. I’ve worked at a start-up; I’ve been in Silicon Valley which is incredibly not diverse. I pretty much lead now with “My name’s Dan and I’m the first person in my family to go to college and I graduated from Harvard,” and that signals a lot of things. When you meet people in the general public, it is a very powerful thing to be able to say and it shows a very unique perspective that is just not common. That’s pretty much what I seek to do in working with first-gens now, is to sort of help them reach that moment earlier than I did at least, because it took me several years, but I think that first-gens are some of the most, particularly first-gens at Harvard, are the smartest people I’ve ever met. They’re the most interesting, they’re the ones who have overcome challenges that most people can’t really even imagine, and I think that there’s a lot of power in that and I’m interested in sort of harnessing that and allowing people to reach their full potential not only for their own benefit, but for the world at large because I don’t think many institutions of power are used to perspectives like ours and I think that we can do a lot to better those institutions.
HFGP: What are you most excited for?
DL: I’m excited about a few things. This is actually a contracted, year-long position at Harvard, and so I’m excited about the job itself. Essentially, I’m finally getting paid for a lot of the work I’ve been doing for free as an alum. I’ve had really intense, actual full time jobs and I’ve somehow managed to work on first-gen alumni stuff which supports students in my free time, but I’m excited that now this is actually part of my job. It brings it to center a little bit. I’m applying to grad school this year, which is something that I really wasn’t thinking about up to this point. I pretty much was like, I don’t see the point of going to school because I’m getting paid to learn and I don’t want to pay to learn, but at this point I’m getting a better sense of what I want to be when I grow up, which is a question I ask myself a lot and is a question that’s been really hard to answer. I feel really good, I’m excited this year to make progress on what that answer is for myself and I’m also excited just to be close to my family, which is something that I haven’t been as excited about in the past. There are a lot of people here who kind of need me, and I’m realizing that I need them as well even though I’ve been super independent up to this point, and I’m excited to have a job that will allow me to spend more time with people who matter to me.
Students can schedule a meeting with Dan Lobo between 11:00AM and 12:00PM Monday-Thursdays through Crimson Careers, meet with him during drop-in hours Mondays 2:00-4:00PM and Wednesdays 1:30-3:30PM, or say hello at student events throughout the year!
This interview has been edited and condensed from one conversation.
About the author
Hello! My name is Ally Scharmann and I’m a sophomore from Western Massachusetts living in Winthrop House. I plan to concentrate in Social Studies with a secondary in History of Art and Architecture... View full profile