Sociologist. Keynote. First-Gen. Knitter.
Those are the identifiers Anthony Abraham Jack uses to introduce himself to the world. There are a litany of others he could add to the list: Researcher. Educator. Honorary Degree Recipient. Student Advocate. Home Chef. Award-Winning Author. But according to Jack, those are the four titles that matter most. (Peruse his socials if you’re interested in his knitting and food journeys, he says.)
He now has two more for consideration. Jack, a well-known higher education researcher and author of the groundbreaking The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press, 2019), started at Boston University in the fall, after working for the past seven years at Harvard. His new roles: associate professor of higher education leadership in the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development department of education leadership and policy studies, and faculty director of BU’s Newbury Center—which serves and celebrates first-generation (first-gen) students on campus.
Maria Dykema Erb continues to serve as the Newbury Center director. She and Jack run the center jointly and report to Victoria Sahani, associate provost for community and inclusion.
“Dr. Jack’s potential to contribute to our programs at Wheelock is significant,” says Dean David Chard. “His scholarship focuses on elite universities that have made an effort to make higher education accessible to first-generation students, but have not always understood the specific needs of these students, particularly if they are poor or scholars of color. His work has both added to our knowledge about marginalized college students and transformed policies and practices on university campuses.”
…IF WE ARE GOING TO DIVERSIFY OUR CAMPUSES AND HAVE A GREATER RANGE OF STUDENTS, THAT MEANS WE CANNOT JUST KEEP TEACHING TO, AND SUPPORTING, A SUBSET OF A POPULATION.
As a former first-gen college student himself, Jack says, “I lived the experiences that the people whom I learn from are going through. My life goal is not just to address problems in higher ed, but rather to use my body of research to provide a framework for universities to live up to the missions that they love to put in Latin on their seals and diplomas.”
As a sociologist, he continues, “I study education, but I’m fundamentally interested in how inequality and poverty shape young people’s life chances. I study universities because I believe that they are, quite frankly, the greatest shot at not only creating mobility, but creating a more equal society.”
WHEN YOU ADDRESS THE INEQUALITIES THAT DISPROPORTIONATELY FALL UPON THE SHOULDERS OF FIRST-GENERATION AND LOW-INCOME STUDENTS, YOU MAKE THE UNIVERSITY BETTER FOR ALL STUDENTS.”
BU Wheelock sat down with Jack to discuss his work to make college accessible and welcoming to all and what he hopes to accomplish at BU—both in the classroom and at the Newbury Center.
BU Wheelock: You often talk about the hidden curriculum that permeates college campuses. Can you share what that means and why it’s important to make it unhidden?
Anthony Abraham Jack: The hidden curriculum is that system of unwritten rules and unset expectations that you might hear about at the dinner table when your father is a professor and your mother is a doctor. Office hours, internships, shadowing—these are shorthand things that everyone seems to know about from their very first day on campus, because their parents were able to socialize them in the way of universities, effectively giving them an 18-year head start. That makes certain students feel less-than and othered for not knowing.
In my work, especially in my first book [The Privileged Poor], I talk about both the symbolic and structural resources that shape how students move to college campuses: the cultural capital and the almighty dollar. Certain students know to go to office hours to communicate their needs [in a class], whereas other people are taught not to make a fuss and to leave people in authority positions alone. But universities operate as if everyone learns the same lessons growing up. And, the way in which so many support services operate is by playing catcher: whether it’s career or mental health services, we wait for students who come in, instead of meeting them where they are.
So what happens when we make our expectations explicit, and we don’t rely on assumptions about what students know? To me, that’s really important. Because if we are going to diversify our campuses and have a greater range of students, that means we cannot just keep teaching to, and supporting, a subset of a population. One of the biggest beneficiaries of my research has actually been international students. When you think about the hidden curriculum, you can be a wealthy student from a different country [but still face some of the same issues as first-gen students]. When expectations on campus are made explicit, all of a sudden things like language barriers, cultural norms, and anxiety around navigating a new place can partly go away. When we better support the individuals that we didn’t necessarily have in mind when creating policies, we are addressing the entrenched inequalities that make campuses separate and unequal.
BU Wheelock: What are some of the things you’ve worked to implement within higher ed that have been especially meaningful to you?
I focus on food insecurity in college students often because so many universities—even universities that require students to be on a residential meal plan—shut down during holiday breaks. When I’ve traveled the country as a keynote speaker [and talked about this], college presidents have literally stood up after my keynote and said, “This policy has to stop, and it’s going to stop right now,” because they have, in a very public and immediate way, learned about a gross injustice and source of inequality on their campus and have committed to addressing it. One of the greatest joys that I’ve ever had was walking into a Harvard dining hall during spring break that was so full of students, there was a line out the door, because they had opened the dining halls for the first time during spring break. To be a young scholar and have your research have a direct impact like that—in that thousands of college students are no longer marking hungry days on their calendars—is tremendous.
Smith College president Kathleen McCartney sent me an email [about my research on financial aid] before breaking big news about Smith’s financial aid process. She said, “Tony, I just wanted to thank you and to let you know that the board has voted that our financial aid policy will be no-loan, and your research was integral to that conversation.” I am trying to give universities a language and a framework with which to understand inequality on their campuses and inspire policy change. So, seeing my research used and expanded upon to create stronger, wider safety nets for students is beyond me. That’s something I will never take for granted.
BU Wheelock: At BU, you joined the Newbury Center as the faculty director when you started this fall. What are you hoping to accomplish in that position?
One of the things that was particularly interesting for me about coming to BU is that the Newbury Center has the potential to not just be a support for students at BU, but actually be a support for research on the experience of first-generation college students, as well as research that addresses the inequality in higher education. And what I want to do is to build out that arm of the Newbury Center, with a focus on scholars who are first-generation and write about first-gen students.
What [inaugural director] Maria Dykema Erb has already done in her short tenure with the center is establish it as not just a home for students, but rather a true partner and advocate for them. What I want to do is allow the Newbury Center to grow and to add to its portfolio research that speaks beyond the individual case of a student and beyond one university. I fundamentally believe that when you address the inequalities that disproportionately fall upon the shoulders of first-generation and low-income students, you make the university better for all students.
BU Wheelock: You also have teaching responsibilities at BU Wheelock. Can you talk about the class you’re teaching?
I’m bringing over my class, C.R.E.A.M., from Harvard. C.R.E.A.M. stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” and it’s a survey course of cultural inequality in higher education. It looks at how social class shapes students’ experiences and their paths to and through higher education. We start with for-profit colleges, then we take a look at financial aid. And then we take a deep dive into undergraduate life at both public and private universities.
BU Wheelock: Finally, what is it that you enjoy the most about being an educator?
Connecting with students. With undergraduates, you’re exposing them to new ways of thinking and being and helping them to figure out who they are. You’re not telling them what to think, but you are pushing them to be able to defend themselves with data and information, whether you agree with their position or not. You’re engaging them and showing them that they are worthy of having a seat at the table and being part of the conversation. With graduate students, you’re pushing them to hone their craft. You are teaching them to move from being a consumer of knowledge to being a producer of knowledge. And that journey is a hard one, but a beautiful one.