Navigating the Ivy League with University of Pennsylvania graduate David Thai

In this episode I interviewed David Thai who graduated from University of Pennsylvania in May 2018. We talk about his journey from being a first generation low income students at an Ivy League institution and how he successfully navigated its academic, social and economic challenges and opportunities.

Links to information mentioned in episode:

Chemistry High School Program University of Pennsylvania


Penn First Plus Program




The First-Generation, Low-Income (FGLI) Program


Rise First

Website | https://risefirst.org/

Facebook | https://www.facebook.com/risefirst1

LinkedIn | https://www.linkedin.com/company/rise-first/


So this is Phenix. I'm recording for the Office Hours with the College Success Professor podcast. I am interviewing David Thai who graduated from University of Pennsylvania. He is a local, as they call ,

00:01:39 the students at my school and local, I don't know if they use that term at Penn locals. But he's from Philadelphia. And he, I met him during, a session at University of Pennsylvania, from a company and he was on a panel talking about first generation low income students. And, we talked a little bit after that.

00:02:02 We found that we both were Fulbright's, I loved what he had to say on the panel. So I invited him to come to our, to the podcast today. We have been talking a bit before we actually started recording, so I had some controversial questions that I didn't know if he wanted to talk about live,

00:02:22 but he did agree to do so, so that's exciting. So let's just get started with my first question. So could you talk, tell the people who are listening, you know, who you are, where you're from, how you, , you know, got to Penn and all of, you know,

00:02:39 basically an introduction, your major when you graduated, what you're doing now. Sure, of course. Yeah. So first I just wanted to say thank you to Phenix for inviting me. It's been a great opportunity for me to have the chance to really share my experiences as a first generation low income students from Philadelphia. Truly, truly an honor.

00:03:00 So my name is David Thai. I was born and raised South Philly. I attended the Gerard Academic Music Programs here in South Philly. And then, I went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania where I studied health and societies, and had a concentration in healthcare markets and finance. I graduated in May of 2018 and then spent a year of abroad through the Fulbright fellowship,

00:03:26 Where I taught English to high school students. And then now I'm currently working as a life science analyst for a consulting company focusing on pricing and market access. Excellent. Did you share what your major was when you came in to Penn? When I came into Penn I thought I was going to study either chemistry or biochemistry. And after about two and a half years I realized I didn't really want to pursue,

00:03:55 a career medicine but still wanted to pursue a career that was in the health field or the health sciences field. Cause I was fortunate to be able to shift into another major that was basically public health. But then my concentration was more of a business side of healthcare. Excellent. So you said you went to is it GAMP ?or, Yeah. Okay.

00:04:17 Yeah, I'm familiar with that school. So,, I don't know, maybe, , you know, miss, uh, thinking, but is it normal or common for students graduating from GAMP to go to universities, uh, Ivy league universities? Could you tell them like exactly how that happened, , that you, you know, applied for and decide like how was that even on your list of schools to apply to?

00:04:46 Yeah, of course. So to answer your first question, I don't believe most students from my high school go to an Ivy league institution, let alone Penn. Despite Penn being just in our backyard. I think every year, maybe it's one or two students, it's usually as the valedictorian and salutatorian.

00:05:05 but my year I think it was really unique where the top four students went to Penn. but I wouldn't consider a school like a feeder school. In my experience. I had no, like I didn't set my eyes on Penn at all. I didn't even know Penn existed until maybe my junior year of high school. and I think a lot of that is just from the fact that I was surrounded by people who were either going to go to a local school nearby,

00:05:32 like Temple University or Drexel University or Villanova or St Joe's. Many of us were thinking of doing the two plus two program where we do two years of community college and then two years at either Penn State or Temple or what have you. So I initially had like, that was my trajectory. , I didn't, I wasn't super well versed in the higher education process.

00:05:54 I figured out a lot on the whole common, the FAFSA, the CSS profile, the whole thing. Just basically going on Google and like Googling, like, how do I go to college? Um, my parents didn't know how to figure, like my parents didn't know what to do. They just knew that from high school you go to college and if you go to college,

00:06:12 you find a job, get married, et cetera. Uh, but for me it was, I didn't, I couldn't lean on my parents for that type of support. So a lot of it was just one going on Google and looking on how to apply for colleges and then two, reaching out to colleges and asking them like,

00:06:32 Hey, what is a W9, what are these talks forms? What I don't understand how to fill this out. Can I speak to someone to talk about that? And it wasn't until my junior year where I had a couple of people when I was like looking, when I started my college search public, people telling me that like I wasn't smart enough to go to Penn,

00:06:52 institutions like Penn wouldn't take welfare. Kids like me. They would take kids from families who are on welfare who are on food stamps, et cetera. And I think that kind of started a little fire within me to prove them wrong. and I, I wasn't doing terrible in high school and I think, I didn't know who I was going to be up against and I was like,

00:07:15 it doesn't hurt to try. that was my junior year of high school. And then I found out that Penn actually had a summer program for high school students and I was like, Oh, this would be like a great opportunity for me to think about, you know, going to an institution like Penn. And, I applied for their Chemistry Research Academy.

00:07:32 , I got the full ride for that. And so I was able to spend basically four weeks, , going through these like high school programs offered at Penn, specifically within chemistry where I got to meet professors, learn about different research studies that are going on. and it was really drawn because I felt really academically challenged and motivated to pursue,

00:07:56 just pursue kind of like that educational opportunity at Penn. And then after that I started asking around for different questions and doing a deep dive Google search of what Penn has to offer. And then I actually found that they did the Young Scholars Program where they offered, where they offer juniors and seniors, high school students in the Philadelphia district to apply and take undergraduate courses.

00:08:21 And I applied for that and got in and I was able to take two classes at Penn. I took an Introduction to Calculus and then I took a higher level calculus course at Penn and from my high school, I didn't have AP calc or AP history or AP, whatever. Like we had AP music and that was about it. And, ,

00:08:42 we had like a growing AP bio class, but generally speaking we just did not have AP courses. And so being able to take an academically challenging and rigorous course at Penn and doing well, , to be able to sit with undergraduate students and talk to professors and have that open dialogue that I didn't necessarily have in high school. I was like, wow,

00:09:00 this is an awesome opportunity. I love to see myself spending my undergraduate career doing this. And then, so I applied early to Penn, was able, I was accepted early and then uh, you know, was pretty much like set in that in that regard. I obviously applied to other schools within the area. I didn't even know like the Ivy league and like the Ivy league existed.

00:09:24 You know, you hear about Harvard, you hear about Yale, you hear about Princeton. But for me I was like, okay, yeah, those are like, like really great schools. I didn't know they were part of like this Ivy league, like they were a part of the Ivy league. And so being able to, if we're I wasnt until I got to Penn,

00:09:38 and I was like, Oh, like they're like, these schools in the, Ivy League There is a Stanford, there's all these top tier schools. But for me it was like growing up it was always, I always knew someone who either went to Temple or Drexel or Philadelphia, St Joe's. And so I was like, that was where I was seeing myself.

00:09:54 And then getting into Penn and then diving into it, I became much more open to the world outside of Philadelphia that I never had imagined for myself. And then being able to meet so many students from across the country, across the world, across different walks of life was extremely eyeopening. just because I felt that a lot of people who went to Temple,

00:10:17 who went to Drexel, most of them came from Philly. And so, I didn't really get that diverse perspective. Granted those institutions most definitely do have diversity, but I think I just knew so many people going there that I felt like it would've been like high school 2.0 I feel like I going to Penn, like not many of us worked in Philadelphia.

00:10:36 And so like that was like that great opportunity in that trade off there. So there's so many questions that I have, in addition to the ones I sent you earlier, like, uh, so when the people, the haters were going to call them, said that, you know, you, you know, they wouldn't accept you. You,

00:10:54 why are you applying to Penn? things like that. Did that, I mean, I know you were able to take classes as a high school student, but did that, uh, shape or give you, or maybe you already or had some fears about, you know, going to an institution like Penn. And so how did you know your thoughts about what Penn would really be like and what Penn actually was like,

00:11:18 either when you were in high school or when you were actual a freshmen? How did those two compare and how do you deal with those maybe feelings of self, self doubt or being an imposter if you had any of those types of feelings? Yeah, I mean, coming into the institution I was met with a lot of, just a lot of stimulus and a lot of differences that I've only seen on TV or like disparities.

00:11:43 to your initial point, just the fear of going into college was one thing. Like the fear of going to a college where the majority of the people did not come from similar backgrounds was even more terrifying. And growing up I've always had this Philly accent. And then it wasn't until college that I became very, very cognizant of my Philly accent and you know,

00:12:06 I kind of had like code, switch, or think about how I presented myself because often times when I spoke to people it was kind of like, Oh, you're from the hood or you're from like, you're from Philly. Like, you know, it was just like that type of background that I didn't really want people to associate me with. Um,

00:12:24 which in hindsight now like looking back, I think I regret kind of hiding that part of my identity and now I've become much more comfortable sharing about my background and my experiences. but there was tremendous fear just going in because, you know, I walked onto campus and a lot of people were wearing and wearing like high end clothes to me, I was oftentimes I tell people like,

00:12:48 you know, I commented, I came into the fall semester and I had saved up enough money to get a North Face jacket. Those things aren't even like, like they're not cheap. And to me I felt like, Oh, I'm going to college, I'm wearing this North face jacket. Like I can fit it. And everyone else around me were wearing like these $800 - $900 jackets that was like Canada Goose Brand or Montclair.

00:13:13 And I was just, wow. Like that was a huge disparity. Um, and then, you know, thinking about like the meals or the meal plans that I got to have and like having my own bedroom for once. A lot of these things were all new to me. I grew up, sleeping on the same bed with two of my brothers,

00:13:30 living in the same room, in a small little row home in South, Philly. And now I had the privilege and luxury of actually having my own bedroom, to be able to like have heater whenever I want or have AC whenever I want. To walk over to a dining hall and get food whenever I want. Those were things that I didn't necessarily have growing up.

00:13:47 , but a lot of my peers like that was their minimum expectations. They were expecting like gourmet food and these high end things. And for me I was like, wow, I'm like the fact that I can just wake up and like go get breakfast and head off the class. That was like a huge privilege, , from being able to like get comfortable with that and feel like I deserved it as opposed to like,

00:14:09 I'm lucky to have such conversation that I constantly have this myself grew up all my four years. Well, that's, So, you never really think about that. And we kind of were talking about that. When I was telling you about the book I was reading, that talked about how higher or Ivy league institutions, based on the research by,

00:14:34 Chedi who's an economic, an economist I guess, that, you know, the income disparity between students who are admitted to like Ivy league and Ivy plus universities, is so different, you know, these higher, these institutions of higher learning are admitting students who are already in the, you know, wealth, the wealthy class.

00:14:57 whereas you know, the students who may really be able to most benefit from the benefits of higher education and attending these Ivy league institutions, are of the lower income. so you, you, I think you did know a little bit about, you know, you know, perhaps you know, the admittance of students, cause I think you said four students in your class were admitted.

00:15:19 I don't know if that had any effect on, you know, the research and the goals of these institutions of higher learning, trying to, , admit more students, who are low income. but you were talking a bit about that. So if you could share, you know, your thoughts on how important it is for institutions to,

00:15:40 you know, create more diversity with regard to, you know, perhaps race and economics, as it being important. Yeah, most definitely. There's something that I am, I feel very passionate. Well I think a lot of folks, it's always been a momentum for diversity and inclusion regarding folks from racially underrepresented backgrounds, which in my opinion is extremely important to consider.

00:16:07 But then there's also the intersectionality of first generation low income students from underrepresented backgrounds as well. And when you have that intersectionality, often times it's not really discussed or it's not really leveraged for universities to really think about. , because I met a lot of racially underrepresented folks into higher education and who did it come from? A first generational background. ,

00:16:31 a lot of them came from much more wealthier backgrounds and much more privileged backgrounds. Not to say that their experiences being racially underrepresented or being from a marginalized background, uh, it's not to say that that didn't play a factor or that that doesn't matter. That definitely does matter. , but for the kids that I grew up with, the kids that were in my neighborhood who were racially underrepresented,

00:16:57 who were first in their families, who were low income, like those students have a smaller chance of getting into like an institution like Penn. and I think it's really important that institutions across the country are really cognizant about that. And I think within the last five years or five to 10 years, there's been a momentum for first generation inclusion and low income students.

00:17:18 and, and I think institutions today that could speak more about Penn, just in my year, I think there was maybe like one out of 12 or one out of 13 first generation students.And like this past year, I think it was like one out of eight, right? So there's, there's definitely an increasing attention and awareness,

00:17:38 especially given the national movement for first generation empowerment. But as you can imagine, like a first generation status does not equate to being a low income student and vice versa. and I think there's also like the same dialogue carries across,, racially underrepresented, but racially underrepresented students. Where folks might perceive, minority groups, racial minority groups as be on the lower income side,

00:18:05 but that's not entirely or accurately true. And it's important that we're able to desegregate that kind of information and that type of identity to really be able to think about how are we holistically accepting students from different marginalized backgrounds. and I'm really proud of my institution, my Alma mater, just because coming into Penn, I didn't think a lot of the resources that we have today weren't necessarily in place when I first started,

00:18:30 but I think through student advocacy, through the institution and the administrators being receptive and open to some of the feedback that we were giving as first generation students, I think Penn has done tremendous work serving and meeting the needs of disadvantaged students. that's not to say there isn't much more to do. There's definitely much more to do. , but I think the institution right now has,

00:18:54 has done tremendous work and I think, , you know, I'm really proud of the institution and I can say that other institutions don't necessarily have the same resources. , but I think like collectively across the country or institutions need to do more for, their students that are, are not necessarily like being supported in that regard. Right. And I think when we met,

00:19:16 you were representing the FIGI panel, the first generation low income office on campus. I don't know, maybe you do know when that office actually came into existence. I know one of the, , I forget what her role was in the institution, but she was also a Fulbright. I think she introduced us or we were all talking about being a Fulbright.

00:19:36 so could you talk if you know a bit more about the, , that office on, on Penn's campus? FIGLI okay. Yeah. So, uh, well the FILGI identity, so that sense of first generation low income, , FIGLI it's just more of a like an identity that, , allows students identify with. there's like the FIGLI program,

00:19:56 which was started, or let's go back, there was Penn First that started several years ago to really bring together first generation students and to really draw attention to the administrators. and to think about how can the institution provide more support for first generation, low income students. And so Penn First was a student group, , that really advocated a lot for resources.

00:20:20 That advocated a lot more for attention and awareness. and through Penn for us, a number of different organizations came about that started to address more specific needs for first generation students. And then you have the FIGLI program which emerged out of the Greenfield Intercultural Center, which started to have more of a formal leverage or more formal connection between students as well as well as administrators.

00:20:47 And then this past year, Penn launched the Penn First Plus Intiative where the Penn First Plus Program where we finally have administrators who are responsible for serving the needs of, the first generation students, connecting students with, first generation alumni. , and I believe like were you were talking about Lisa Garza, she was a Fullbrighter and she has been doing a lot of work,

00:21:11 , supporting first generation students, but at the same time trying to engage first generation alumni or alumni who were first in their families to go to Penn. , and really helping to think about how can they, , be more interactive with the institutions, particularly, , being a resource guide for first generation students. and in the past year,

00:21:31 like I, I graduated last year, but this past year when the FIGLI or the Penn First Plus Program started, , I haven't really gotten a chance to dive too much into it, but I was able to chat with a number of different folks involved with that. And, it's promising to see that Penn is really doing a lot more to address the needs of the students.

00:21:50 Yeah. I think the fact that there is a specific office who's tasked with that shows that they're putting their money where their, their mouth is. So I think that's really great and I was very surprised, that I, you know, I am a first generation low income student., but you never really think about it like,

00:22:10 and I work in higher ed. , but until, you know that concept or that idea, you know, it was brought to I guess the attention of, I guess media and, the world. You don't really think about, you know, the, the barriers, the, the obstacles that students have to face when they're in,

00:22:31 you know, they're first in their families, they don't have the resources, they don't have the network, they don't have all of the, you know, things that you need like getting through college and itself, whether you are,