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The “Lightbulb Moment” that Sparked a Movement — and Won the Praise of President Obama

After graduating from Packer, Mandeep Singh ’11 majored in urban studies at Columbia University, where he co-founded FLIP, the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, a campus organization for students who, like him, were the first in their families to attend college. Since then, FLIP has expanded to college campuses across the nation. At the Obama Foundation’s 2017 Summit, Mandeep was one of three young changemakers interviewed by President Obama

Tell us what you are up to professionally these days.

After graduating from Columbia in 2015, I landed a job at Dropbox in San Francisco. I started off as a salesperson, then became a data analyst, and finally finished as a project manager. In September, I left to join the business strategy team at a software company called Zenefits. Although I’m having an incredible journey, I’m looking forward to eventually heading back home to New York City and finding the intersection between technology and social impact for my future endeavors.

Tell us about your role in the creation of FLIP — First Generation Low-Income Partnership.

When I first came to Packer as a freshman in 2007, I quickly learned that my narrative was different compared to many other students. I knew that being a first-generation, low-income student created gaps for me in terms of integrating socially and academically. Though I couldn’t have imagined a more welcoming community than Packer, I knew from my personal experience that there is much work to be done to fight the challenges that students like myself face on their paths to upward social mobility. 

After starting at Columbia, I had a major lightbulb moment when I realized that I was not the only one experiencing the isolation of being a first-gen student. With friends I had made through other social justice initiatives on campus, I slowly began conversations related to our identity and the fact that Columbia’s policies and student life made us feel unsupported. I went on to co-found and lead FLIP as a formal student organization that not only built community for first-gen, low-income students, but also organized projects that directly helped meet our needs. Given its success, we went one step further and started FLIP National my senior year—a nonprofit aiming to create a national community for first-generation, low-income students. 

What was it like being interviewed by President Obama?

Ever since he was the junior Senator from Illinois, I have found deep inspiration in his message and story. Attending the Obama Foundation Summit and meeting President Obama feels like a daydream that I continue to process. Although the three of us who were interviewed were nervous wrecks, we instantly felt a calmness when he shook our hands and made a joke to ease our nerves. The perception so many of us have of him, of his charming character and his care for people, is very much genuine. 

You have a deep commitment to organizing on behalf of marginalized groups. If you could change one thing in this country on their behalf, what would it be?

I’ve always been drawn to this line by author Teju Cole: “We fight not for the love of fight but to guarantee the part of life that isn’t fight.” If there’s anything I could change, I would change the fact that marginalized people are bound to this constant fight for their survival day in and out. Whether it’s first-gen students trying to graduate, the African-American community seeking justice, or women fighting for equity, grassroots organizing and activism are fueled by this relentless need to survive within a system that ignores them. However, the constant lack of stability and fear that comes with their marginalization has incredible impacts on the psyche of the community and produces a life in which peace can be a foreign concept. I wish their voices were truly listened to by majority communities so that we can help build a life for our communities that is not based solely on the foundation of fighting.

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