Three lessons I learned as a first-generation, low-income student at Harvard

academic advice career advice first generation student mentorship networking

My four years at Harvard were some of the most confidence-ravaging yet vibrant years of my life so far. I took a lot of physics classes, but the greatest lessons I've learned all happened outside the classroom. Here are some of the key takeaways I had at Harvard as a first-generation, low-income student.

1. Even the science world is not a meritocracy: it’s a who-knows-who world.  

When I started college, I truly believed that since scientific theories are supported by empirical data that science professionals themselves would be guided by objectivity. I thought that who I knew personally wouldn’t impact my chances of getting a science job or getting into science graduate school. I thought that the data I presented in an application for a position would be all that a reviewing body needed. I thought that all that they would consider would be my merits. 

Wrong, of course. 

I got two internships during undergrad purely though networking. 

For the first instance of networking, I went to a short winter school and met a staff scientist with whom I had a long, lively conversation. After that conversation, she encouraged me to apply to work at her friend’s company. The staff scientist, her friend, and I went out for brunch. Then I interviewed with the Very Important Friend and applied for the job at his company. And I got it. 

Of course, I was qualified. But there are many, many qualified individuals out there who could have done the job. Developing a personal connection with both the staff scientist and her Very Important Friend helped put my application over the edge.

The second instance of networking landing me a job was when I told one of my professors in passing that I wanted to do an internship at XYZ. My professor said, “Oh yes, I’m friends with the director of that program. I’ll put you in touch.” I then had to have several interviews with other professors at XYZ; shortly thereafter, I got the internship. 

Due to these critical moments in my career, I now regularly work to expand my network. I try to go to as many winter/summer schools as I can, attend conferences, connect with everyone on LinkedIn, meet friends of friends in my interest areas, talk to professors, and ask people in my network if they can connect me with people they know. It makes all the difference - trust me.

2. Attending office hours is critical to your academic and professional success. 

Office hours are hours that are set by each professor for each class, and they are a time for students to ask questions about the class content/assignments and meet other students in a more informal setting.  For physics and math classes at Harvard, our homework was meant to be very difficult and not solvable entirely on our own. The professors encouraged us to talk to other students, learn from them, and work through problems together. 

For my physics classes, I went to every available office hour each week for each class. I would spend time before the office hours working on the problems until I got stuck, and then I would ask for help at office hours. During office hours, professors and teaching assistants and other students would give valuable hints for solving a problem. 

Even if I thought I knew how to solve a problem, sometimes it would turn out to be wrong. Other times, I could teach others how to work through the problem, solidifying my understanding. Other times, I learned of a different approach to solve a problem I had solved. 

But more important than the problems I solved at office hours were the classmates that I met that I became friends with. I had friends who I could ask to send lecture notes if I was sick during class or commiserate over how hard the class was. The camaraderie at office hours helped me feel more welcome in the physics department. 

3. Find as many mentors as early as you can 

I started working in my primary mentor’s lab the summer after my freshman year and continued working in her lab until I graduated from college. My mentor provided emotional support when another professor had made sexist comments to me. She wrote recommendation letters for awards and fellowships and graduate schools. She gave me a lot of advice on how to choose a graduate program. She led the physics lab that was an incredible professional and social home to me for four years. Having a professor vouch for me and connect me with her network and mentor me is one of the main reasons I’ve been successful. 

To find a mentor, I recommend first getting to know your professors during office hours. If there isn’t enough time to talk to them one-on-one, reach out and set up a time to ask them for advice on careers and classes, or ask them about their professional journey.  You can also email lecturers, staff scientist/researchers, graduate students, or teaching assistants who you have or haven’t met! If you are cold-emailing them, just introduce yourself in the email, say what you appreciate about their work, and ask for a time to chat for career or class advice.

There are many kinds of mentorship styles, and every mentor will have a different personality, so do not feel like the first person you reach out to for mentorship will stay your mentor or will be the right mentor for you. 

I also had more mentors than just my primary mentor. Throughout college, I was mentored by graduate students, several professors, staff scientists, and university staff. They all provided a unique kind of mentorship. I didn’t connect with all of them with the same frequency. Some mentors I spoke with casually on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. Other mentors I spoke with only a handful of times throughout undergrad. With some mentors, I only discussed my course schedule. With others, I talked about my overall career. But all of them gave me invaluable advice and support, and I will continue our relationships even though I’ve graduated.

Denisse graduated from Harvard College with a BA in Physics. After her gap year, she will start a PhD in MIT's Nuclear Science and Engineering Department.

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