Student Stories

College alum writes guidebook for first-generation, low-income students

Jessica Ilayalith Mora, AB ‘20, draws upon thesis research, personal experience to give students tools for success

In one of her first classes at the University of Chicago, Jessica Ilayalith Mora, AB’20, recalls being overwhelmed right off the bat. The professor’s pace was quick, and while students around her said the material was a review of high school AP Chemistry, she wasn’t able to keep up. 

As a first-generation, low-income (FLI) undergraduate student, she started to feel out of place. But after class she met with another student, and when she confessed that she was having trouble getting up to speed, he was happy to help her. Ultimately, the experience empowered her to be more comfortable saying, “I don’t know this, can you help me?”

Nonetheless, Mora, who is now a financial analyst for Home Depot in Jacksonville, Fla., says that developing relationships with faculty or peers can be intimidating for FLI students and is one of many challenges they often must overcome on their own.

To provide FLI students with a toolkit for success, she wrote a book, titled Spread Your Wings and FLI: How to Effectively Navigate College as a First-Generation, Low-Income Student, which was published in April. 

On May 13, she spoke at a virtual book launch event sponsored in part by the Center for College Student Success (CCSS), for which Mora served on the student advisory board during her time in the College. Watch her discuss the book and her time at UChicago with Asst. Instructional Prof. Sorcha Brophy here:

Below, Mora explains the motivations behind the book and gives a broad overview of the resources it provides.

What inspired you to write this book?

Mora: The inspiration for the book came partially from my own experiences going to UChicago as an FLI student, and partially from speaking with other FLI students. When it was time to write my senior thesis for Public Policy, I landed upon the question: “how do FLI students experience elite institutions?”

My research for the thesis involved interviewing Odyssey scholars at UChicago and, once I was done with that, I wrote some policy recommendations for the University based on the feedback and interviews I did with them. Once I was done, I thought ‘this is great, but I'm only one student, and this is only one research project.’ I wanted to do something with more impact. 

In the course of my research, I had identified some holes and knowledge gaps that FLI students weren't super familiar with at the beginning of their college careers. I often heard ‘Oh, I wish I had known this when I was a first-year,’ or ‘I wish I had heard about this resource when I was coming into UChicago.’ So that's where the inspiration for the book came from. The best way to address all of that and give people the insight and guidance they need was to write this book.

What are some examples of tips that you give in the book, for FLI students navigating campus life?

Mora: Generally speaking, I try to touch on various aspects of a well-rounded student's life, breaking down the whole college experience down year-by-year. 

Academically, I talk about things like how to prepare for office hours, what to do on the first day of class, how to approach professors and start building those relationships. 

I also touch on professional life. When FLI students are looking for internships, it can take a while to figure out what networking really means, especially if you’re someone who doesn't have a network to start with. So I provide tips to start building your network. 

And finally, I talk about what you can do to take care of yourself, get to know yourself and use the resources around you to find the right path in college.

The book tells the stories of several high-profile people who were also FLI students. What was speaking with them like and what did you learn?

Mora: I think one of the people I was really most excited to speak to was Ana McCullough, the co-founder of the QuestBridge Network, a nonprofit that connects low-income students with leading academic institutions. It was really interesting to get her perspective on these topics, because as an FLI student at Stanford, she saw a need to expand opportunities and helped expand QuestBridge to what it is now. 

It all really made me realize that regardless of what kind of institution these FLI students go to, or how many years ago they graduated from college, there were so many similarities and similar issues that they discussed going through, which I also had heard about through my thesis research just interviewing UChicago students. It was really an interesting finding.

Though it’s primarily a guide for FLI students, do you think the book would be valuable for others in the UChicago community to read, too?

Mora: I definitely do think it's a useful resource for faculty, staff, advisors, or anyone else who works with FLI students. In the book I actually give an example of a time when a professor I had realized some of the challenges that FLI students in his class were facing, and decided to add resources to the back of his syllabus for anyone who was experiencing food or housing insecurity, or needed mental health support. 

That really helped me and other students see that the professor was thinking about us beyond just the work we did for his class, and made the prospect of coming to office hours feel more approachable. 

There are multiple examples like that in the book that faculty or advisors can learn from and use to make accommodations for these students.