First-Gen Voices

First-Gen Voices of Harvard College Students and Their Families

first-gen voicesThe Bureau of Study Counsel collaborated with StoryCorps to record conversations between first-generation-to-college Harvard College juniors and their parents (or other members of their family or community). The 30 audio clips on this site were selected, transcribed, and translated by the student participants. This project was made possible with funding from Harvard College and a private donor.


Hear Their Stories

Read The Backstory

by the staff of the Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University
Copyright © 2016 President and Fellows of Harvard College


Over the years, we have heard from first-generation Harvard College students how challenging it can be to convey to families, friends, and mentors back home their experience of being a student at Harvard.  It can be difficult to get beyond the what’s – what courses, what papers and exams, what fields of concentration, what friends and associates, what events and activities, what achievements – and to speak, in a meaningful way, about their experience of living and learning in college.  They struggle to bridge the world of home and the world of Harvard.

Several of us at the Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC) listen regularly to the National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasts of interview excerpts from StoryCorps, a non-profit organization dedicated to recording and archiving meaningful conversations between pairs of people who matter to one another.  The organization’s mission, described on the StoryCorps website, is “to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.” StoryCorps intends for the recordings to serve as “an invaluable archive for future generations.”


The BSC shares with StoryCorps a fundamental assumption that conversation about what matters to us with someone who cares to listen serves to connect us – to self and other, to purpose and potential, across time and place, across culture and difference.   We found ourselves imagining how powerful it would be to host StoryCorps interviews between Harvard first-generation students and their parents (or another important person from their home community) about their experience of being, or knowing, someone who is the first in their family to go to college.[i]  Our intention was to post excerpts of these interview conversations on our BSC website; we envisioned the conversations being helpful to the participants, to other first-generation students and their families, and to the whole Harvard community. 

In 2016, a generous gift from Rob Friedman, a private donor, made it possible for the BSC to bring StoryCorps to campus to record twelve interviews over Junior Parents Weekend.  Additional funding from Harvard College covered the travel and lodging expenses for the twelve family/community members, most of whom would otherwise not have been able to participate.  We were also able to provide a stipend for the student participants to work with us in creating this website – the students themselves selected, transcribed, and in many cases translated into English these excerpts from their recorded conversations.  (StoryCorps provides all participants with a copy of the full 40-minute recorded interview.)


To be listened to by someone who attends with a sense of presence, curiosity, receptivity, and care is a real gift.  As Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps puts it, “Listening is an act of love.”  As we listen to these excerpts from the BSC /StoryCorps interview conversations, we are reminded that speaking can also be an act of love.  And courage.  As students and their family/community members talk openly about their authentic experiences, we hear, in the tone and timbre – and at times tentativeness and tenderness – of their voices, the power of giving voice to what is personally meaningful.  We are grateful beyond words for the participants’ generosity and vulnerability in speaking about their experience.

We are also grateful to all our collaborators on this project: our private donor, whose generosity made the project possible; Michelle Bova, Maura Johnson, and Mia Warren of StoryCorps, for attending to the project, participants, and fellow professionals with great thoughtfulness, competence, and commitment; Harvard College, for supporting this project, including funding travel and lodging expenses for participating family/community members; Niki Johnson, for consulting with us about budgeting and administration; Katie Derzon, for coordinating all aspects of the project, from recruitment to bookings to scheduling to transcriptions; and Jillian Casey, for helping us to create this website.


As is the case with all StoryCorps interviews, full recordings from this project will be archived in the The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and available for listening in the Center’s FolkLife Reading Room in Washington, DC. 

Copyright, Attribution, and Citation

StoryCorps holds the copyright to the audio recordings of interviews and to the photographs of the participants; StoryCorps has licensed limited use of those to the Bureau of Study Counsel/Harvard University.  Harvard University owns the copyright to all other material on the First-Gen Voices website (  Quotations of the transcripts and translations of interviews from the website by parties other than StoryCorps and the Bureau of Study Counsel should be attributed/cited as follows: “This excerpt is from a website created by the Bureau of Study Counsel of Harvard University with interviews recorded by StoryCorps (, a national nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity's stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.”


[i] Definitions of “first-generation student” vary; if a student’s parents did not graduate from a four-year American college or university, Harvard considers that person to be a first-generation student.  By Harvard’s definition, students whose parents attended or graduated from a college or university in a country other than the United States, students whose parents attended a four-year college or university in the U.S. but did not graduate from that institution, students whose parents attended or graduated from community college, and students whose parents have never attended college are all considered first-gen students.