“We knew a common struggle all too well: that sometimes there was more month at the end of the money.”

Anthony Jack ’07; Majors: Women’s and gender studies, religion

When Anthony Jack ’07 came to Amherst as a first-year from Miami, he wondered: “Where are all the other poor, black people?”

“Back home, summer was just a season; at Amherst, summer was also a verb,” said the Harvard sociologist last semester in Pruyne Lecture Hall, where he told his story and explained his research.

In those early days at Amherst, he said, classmates swapped stories of travels abroad and parties at second homes. He resigned himself to feeling out of place. But then a fellow student—one who’d talked about studying abroad in high school—said her family had trouble making ends meet. She and Jack swapped their own stories of doing homework by candlelight when the electricity was off. “We knew a common struggle all too well: that sometimes there was more month at the end of the money,” Jack said. 

Jack is now a junior fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard, where he studies the factors that influence undergraduates’ sense of belonging at elite colleges and their acquisition of cultural and social capital. 

“When anthropologists, economists and sociologists wrote about lower-income students, they wrote of a single experience chronicling culture shock and isolation,” he says. “I have long grown tired of analyses comparing those from families who did and did not go to college. To overlook the rich diversity of experiences within first-generation college students is to base policy on only a partial picture.”

His research involves interviews with 103 black, white and Latino undergraduates at a pseudonymous university, as well as two years of ethnographic research. He divides them into two groups: the “privileged poor,” who live in low-income, often segregated places but enter college from elite schools, and the “doubly disadvantaged,” who live in similar areas but enter from their local public schools. 

Both groups confront realities that distract from learning. “Hunger,” he says, “is as much a part of the first-gen lower-income experience as going to the
Bahamas or Europe is for their wealthier peers.” But the privileged poor arrive with more cultural capital. They are often proactive in forging relationships with professors, for example, while the doubly disadvantaged might not know what office hours even are. 

It helps all students when schools consider these varied experiences, Jack believes, pointing to the university he studied, where career and mental health services now reach out proactively instead of waiting for students to come to them. 

At Amherst, Jack says, he learned to question assumptions within sociology. He continues that work at Harvard, where, after his fellowship, he will be an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education. 

Amherst’s Wade Fellowship

In addition to his work at Harvard, Jack is the Wade Fellow at Amherst. This newly revitalized program recognizes black alumni achievement and connects black alumni with students for
career mentorship and discussion.

The fellowship began in 1977 and is named for the late Harold Wade Jr. ’68, who, as an Amherst student, organized the Afro-American Society and worked to attract black high school students to the College.