Cat Sposato photographed at home in Passaic, New Jersey, where she finished up her junior year at Columbia via Zoom. Photos: Caroline Tompkins

For First-Gen College Kids, the Class Struggle is Real

Low-income students like Cat Sposato are fighting for equality in a system built by and for elites

Jennifer Miller
GEN
Published in
18 min readMay 20, 2020

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On March 8, as the coronavirus was starting to spread across the country and New York City seemed an increasingly dangerous place to be, a group of student activists at Columbia University met to discuss the situation. Classes were not yet canceled, and the chapter leaders of the First Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP) — a national nonprofit that advocates for first-generation and low-income college students — were worried about their community. What if kids couldn’t afford adequate cleaning supplies or protective equipment? Or if they got sick and couldn’t do their work-study jobs, how would they pay the university fees? Many of these students couldn’t afford frequent delivery and takeout. Would they be more susceptible to the virus in the dining halls?

FLIP’s executive board was drafting a letter to the administration when an email landed: The university was temporarily canceling classes while it transitioned to virtual learning. “We were like, oh shit, this is getting very real,” said Cat Sposato, one of FLIP’s co-presidents. Within minutes, another FLIP member received a second email. It was a work-study supervisor, asking if the student could come in…

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Jennifer Miller
GEN
Writer for

Jennifer’s next book, First Generation, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She writes for the New York Times and the Washington Post Magazine.