Fli students in front of Nassau Hall.

Khristina Gonzalez is Senior Associate Dean of the College and the inaugural Bob Peck ’88 Director of the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity. She is a leader in her field and plays an integral role in advancing Princeton’s commitment to an inclusive undergraduate student body. I have invited her to share a bit about her important work. —C.L.E.

In April 2020, at the height of COVID-19’s first wave, The New York Times published an article titled “College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are.” It painted the different experiences of two Haverford students following campus closures. No longer residing in the same dorms or learning in the same classrooms, the socioeconomic realities of their families bore greater effect on their college lives—and became visible to their faculty, staff, and peers. The pandemic, the article concluded, revealed that despite their access initiatives, elite colleges simply “paper over” persistent inequality in their student bodies. And, in plucking high-achieving students from their hometowns, they leave the structural inequities affecting those communities untouched.

As the Director of Princeton’s newly-established Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity, a unit dedicated to forging paths to educational equity, I’ve been kept awake many nights by this article. Over the past fifteen years, Princeton’s access initiatives have truly changed our community. Our first-generation, lower-income (or Fli) students now comprise around one third of the undergraduate population—up from 7 percent of the Class of 2008. We’ve revived our Transfer Program, welcoming community college graduates and military veterans. In short, we have undergone what President Eisgruber has called “the greatest transformation of Princeton’s undergraduate student body since co-education.” But have these initiatives merely disguised inequity? Have we been content with pursuing “access” alone, changing our demographics but leaving our institution —and the world—fundamentally the same?

I’ve worked with our Princeton Fli student community for nearly a decade, and can confidently say that, no, our change has not been a mere façade. In fact, our Fli students themselves have helped us transform not only who a Princeton education is for, but what it can do in society.

At Princeton, our access initiatives do not exist to simply get students in the door; they commit to ensuring that all students, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to thrive. This commitment requires us to do more than meet their basic needs on campus. It requires us to work in partnership with them to address the broader social realities that shape their lives, both on and off campus.

In principle, this commitment has meant operating with a transformational, rather than assimilative framework. We must ensure our students’ experiences—and those of their communities—remain visible, rather than shrouded in obscurity outside FitzRandolph Gate.

This visibility is a gift from our students, allowing us to work to reform lingering inequities in our institution and the world.

In practice, this commitment is evident in many of the programs we offer through the Emma Bloomberg Center. Our Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP) brings campus awareness to our Fli students’ experiences while providing them with mentorship and support. Established with 40 students in 2015 and now 450 members strong, SIFP empowers students to bring their backgrounds to bear upon their academic, professional, and social journeys at Princeton.

As a result, not only have we been able to craft more equitable institutional policies, like ensuring that students have access to necessary emergency funds through our Office of Campus Life, we’ve also been able to engage more deeply with students’ home communities. For instance, with Princeton’s Pace Center, Kelton Chastulik ’21 began a book drive to deliver quality literary materials to people in his hometown of Chambersburg, PA. That project continues with the support of another Chambersburg-born SIFP student, Madison Mellinger ’23, and has distributed over 7,500 books to over 15 local organizations. Post-graduation, Kelton works for the College Advising Corps in Chambersburg, improving college awareness and closing the gap between his rural community and selective colleges.

This transformational approach can only be achieved in collaboration with our students. If we hope to address emerging needs, we must take their ideas seriously. For example, student advocacy led us to hire a case manager to connect families with social support in their own towns, and a family engagement specialist to equip parents with the information they need to be partners in their child’s educational journey.

Our work, though, is certainly not complete. Last year, President Eisgruber posed an urgent question to our campus: how might Princeton, with its robust resources, “extend its educational mission to reach underserved populations around it?” With the generous support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, our Center can innovate new ways to expand the scale of our initiatives, even beyond current Princeton students. In sharing our learning and programs with colleges across the country, we can further offer a broader platform to the experiences of our Fli students.

Despite all of our talk about “independent work” at Princeton, our students never come to us alone. Like us all, they are embedded in networks and identities that shape their lives. Rather than pretending that these connections end when they enter the “orange bubble,” we must learn from the experiences they bring to Princeton, experiences that help us improve our institution—and the world. From Kelton and Madison, to the hundreds of future Fli graduates, the Emma Bloomberg Center has plenty of good teachers—and we’re eager to learn from them all.