Celebrating family firsts and resourcefulness in the Class of 2024

Lynn Larabi, Crystal Marshall, and Jason Chu all entered Penn as first-generation college undergraduates and the children of immigrants and pursued different paths: political science, film, and finance and accounting.

Lynn Larabi, Crystal Marshall, and Jason Chu.
Lynn Larabi, Crystal Marshall, and Jason Chu are among the first-generation college students graduating in the Class of 2024.

Lynn Larabi recalls that growing up in Northeast Philadelphia some of her earliest school memories involved students at the local library looking over her writing assignments, at her parents’ request. A few years later, her mother—who works at the local elementary school—paid the favor forward by offering Larabi’s help with homework to younger students. Larabi says this emphasized for her the cyclical nature of public service and community involvement.

“I’ve developed a passion for education policy and a passion for workforce development because you really see that spaces like libraries and community centers are needed for families like my own,” she says, in reference to the Free Library of Philadelphia, considering her parents—immigrants from Morocco—faced a language barrier and didn’t attend college. Larabi, a fourth-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences, channeled these passions into a political science major, public service internships, and community engagement.

She also says that observing her father’s experiences as a taxi driver has shaped her views of labor rights. Abderrahim Larabi says he has kept his “Penn Dad” hat in his car for the past four years, and that he’s a lucky dad to have her as his daughter.

“She works hard,” he says, saying she made his dreams of higher education and community impact come true. “In her, I see myself. She is my eyes. What she’s going through, it’s like I am going through.”

Larabi is among the one-in-five members of Class of 2024 who are first-generation college students, according to Penn First Plus. The resource hub uses this term for students whose parents or guardians did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

First-generation students at Penn have a diversity of interests and accomplishments, but from childhood through university they share some attributes and experiences: Resourcefulness in seeking out information, the navigation of unspoken social norms and the implications of generational wealth and, especially in the case of second-generation immigrants, self-imposed pressure to make the most of opportunities their parents provided.

Those in the Class of 2024 navigated all this on top of the unusual experience of beginning college remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re a population that is sprinkled everywhere. We all have different talents, different skills,” says Larabi, who, as president of the First-Generation/Low-Income Dean’s Advisory Board, surveyed students involved in athletics, Greek life, music, and more. “It’s an identity that you honor because it is a triumph to be at an institution like Penn as a first-generation student, and it’s up to us to have a community and have a support system.”

Lynn Larabi.
Lynn Larabi

Her resilience as a first-generation student gave her the guts to start a pop-rock band, Menagerie. She says starting it alongside a group of friends has allowed her to show the Penn community that students of a variety of musical backgrounds and experiences can unite under a shared desire to perform and produce music.

Larabi says one of her favorite experiences at Penn has been her involvement in Ase Academy, a mentorship group for Black middle and high school students from West Philadelphia. “I am one of two mentors from Philly who is involved in this program, and that’s important to me because it’s almost like getting a chance to serve as a mirror to versions of my younger self that I didn’t have,” she says.

Larabi says she always believed in public service and the power of policy to enact change. She learned about the importance of local government interning at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, saw how to uplift youth as a United Nations Foundation intern, and saw her faith in public service increase serving as a campaign fellow for U.S. Rep. Gabe Amo of Rhode Island, also a child of African immigrants.

One of nine Thouron Scholars, Larabi is headed to the University of Oxford to pursue a master’s degree in evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation.

Studying representation in films and festivals

As a communication major with a minor in cinema and media studies, Crystal Marshall says she began to have questions in film classes about who she was watching and why. Taking a course her second year on Black joy—with Chaz Antoine Barracks, an Annenberg School for Communication postdoctoral fellow at the time—provided further direction.

For the final paper for an independent study her third year, supervised by former Annenberg postdoctoral fellow Perry B. Johnson and funded by the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, Marshall examined the film canon, which she describes as a “subset of films people expect you to see to give yourself a degree of credibility.” Looking at lists from entertainment outlets, she found “there were very few films by women, very few films by women of color, and almost no films by Black women, so that was very concerning to me.”

She says going to the Cannes Film Festival last summer changed her life and she subsequently “went down a film festival rabbit hole,” volunteering at BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia and attending the Philadelphia Film Festival. She was co-director for this year’s Bifocal Film Festival, Penn’s first student-led film festival, and is co-president of Monolith Arts Collective, a group dedicated to showcasing the work of Black artists in West Philadelphia.

Crystal Marshall.
Crystal Marshall

Marshall, who is also a Thouron Scholar, will pursue a master’s degree in film programming and curating at the University of London, Birbek. She says she also hopes to continue screenwriting.

With parents who immigrated from Jamaica and didn’t go to college, Marshall, who is from Miami Gardens, Florida, says it was a big deal when she applied for the Thouron Award. She says being a first-generation student comes with a great deal of self-imposed pressure and she felt a sense of, “What did my parents come to this country for if I wasn’t going to go to college and be successful?”

Expressing his pride, her father, Leroy Marshall says, “she has strength and perseverance and here she is.” Seeing her matriculate, he says, “is remarkable.”

“UPenn was the last letter she got in that mail, and everybody was just screaming; we were jumping, and we were shouting. It was great,” recalls her mother, Claudett Marshall. She says at the time she wondered, “Can Crystal manage by herself? How is it going to work?”

Marshall has been working in the Penn First Plus office since the fall of her second year and says she didn’t realize the expansiveness of the first-generation and limited-income (FGLI) identity until working there. “FGLI is something that’s an applicable term even outside of the college setting because it is a big reality for people entering tight-knit industries like entertainment in particular,” she says, noting the industry is also competitive and full of people whose parents worked in entertainment.

First-generation advocacy and research

Jason Chu says a lot of people in his hometown of Sachse, Texas, never left the state, that there was the precedent of going to the local community college and getting a job in the Dallas area. But Chu says going to accounting competitions in high school and seeing students from other schools made him realize he should start looking outwards.

“When I was a sophomore, a senior at my school had gotten into Penn, and he was the first person who had gotten into an Ivy in a while, so that was kind of a mind-blowing moment,” says Chu, a Wharton School student with concentrations in finance and accounting. He searched for top business schools and says he also realized that Penn had a strong FGLI community with a lot of resources.

Chu, who is headed into investment banking in San Francisco after graduation, became a mentee in Penn First Plus’s Pre-First Year Program, Wharton’s Successful Transition & Empowerment Program, and the PEER Mentoring Program, helping Asian and Pacific-Islander students adjust to life at Penn. He went on to join the Wharton Undergraduate Society of Accounting, Wharton Asia Exchange, and Phi Chi Theta, a business fraternity.

Jason Chu.
Jason Chu

Chu says he is passionate about sharing the first-generation experience and says peers may not understand his experience of working a job every semester—and sometimes multiple jobs—to pay rent and expenses.

Having been on the receiving end of help for a while, he says that once he could give back he sought out first-generation spaces. He became involved with Seven|Eight, a Penn community for first-generation Asian American and Pacific Islander students, and 1vyG, the country’s largest summit for FGLI students. Penn hosted the conference last year.

Chu’s honors thesis focuses on how first-generation students fare in the workplace after graduating. “First-generation students are a very understudied area in academia,” Chu says. “A lot of the research is centered around how these students do transitioning into college and how they do getting a job, but there’s kind of a drop-off in understanding how they do long-term, which was my goal.”

He says of his own experience, “I think being a first-generation student at Penn specifically, at an elite institution, is coming to realize the privilege that a person holds. I think coming to Penn I realized how much more power I have relative to the people I grew up with, and I’m trying to understand the best way to harness that toward helping the same people.”

His father, Minh Chu, says he always encouraged his children to at least get a four-year degree, that it will help them down the line and make looking for a job easier. He and Jason’s mother, Jade Tiuong, immigrated from Vietnam. They told Jason they would try to support him the best they could and are “very, very, very happy that four years passed and he’s about to graduate. He has grown so much, and I’m very proud,” Minh Chu says.