This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
First-generation students are a growing percentage of total college student enrollment, which is a very good thing. Not long ago, first-generation students felt the need to keep their economic class and first-generation status to themselves as they tried to simply pass or blend in; however, as their numbers grow, they can exit the shadows and begin to thrive on college campuses.
College is clearly one of the most transformative places in the U.S., even when viewed only in terms of economic gain. First-generation students (FGS) enter college on one plane and, if all goes well, they come out on another. In spite of efforts to be egalitarian, however, college is still primarily a middle class environment, one that labels many FGS as remedial or, if they excel, as “scholarship” students.
While in college FGS tend to exist in an ambiguous space; they cross boundaries and borders every day and float a bit until they tether themselves. Slowly, their new surroundings enforce a keen sense that they don’t quite fit in at home (or in their working-class past), nor do they have a handle on the present; the future is still completely unknown. This makes the difficult transition to college that much harder for FGS; many of these students find it easier to avoid a personal narrative that identifies them as such.
Let me put this in perspective. I was a first-generation student. My father was a lineman for the telephone company and my mother was a receptionist at a law firm. My neighborhood was firmly blue-collar and most of my friends from high school took civil service exams and became police officers, firefighters or sanitation workers. My parents were proud that I went to college, as they wanted the best for me. But, they didn’t understand why I had to buy so many books, nor could they answer my questions or tell me who to speak to. I was left to fend for myself.
They didn’t know what an average semester schedule looked like, and wondered why I only had classes four days a week. To them, with my 15 hours of class time a week and many hours sitting around reading, I was lazy. If I had that much time on my hands, I had to get a part-time job, and for them that meant working 20 hours a week. Like most FGS from working-class families, I was a full-time student who worked.
College opened doors for me, challenged my worldview and gave me enormous opportunities. It changed me forever. But, I found myself thinking differently than my family, caring about things they did not and wanting different things out of life. I also began to long for escape, as what I saw around me was too limited and sad. This made me slightly ashamed of where I came from.
Many FGS look at their families and desire to escape; as they experience this desire, they also feel inferior to many of their classmates who, they assume, know what they are doing. They also tend to feel slightly superior to their families, causing tension. Like most FGS, I went home every night, and I felt like a time traveler. This led me to spend more and more time on campus, to avoid the disjunction because it made me uncomfortable.
Colleges need to find a way to transform FGS without diminishing or replacing their own cultures, without forcing them to choose the future over the past. They need to do this in a way that avoids spotlighting them as “special” and therefore stigmatizing them. What I found effective was when faculty members, who themselves were FGS, told their stories or revealed their backgrounds. They became possibilities in my eyes. While it was hard to connect with an Ivy League-educated son of writers and artists who traveled widely, I felt more comfortable talking with professors and students who had backgrounds like me (interestingly, many of them were black though I am white). But, I didn’t discover them until I started telling my own story.
Three things mattered to me in my success. First, I found a mentor who understood me and who I could identify with. Second, I found a space on campus that became like a second home, a place where I spent hours studying and felt comfortable. And, lastly, I learned that I didn’t have to reject my past to enter the future: I could hold the two in tension, and the ability to do this was key. It took me a while to realize that while college changed me, I was still from and connected to my community.
So, what can colleges proactively do? This is a different generation, thankfully, one in the Facebook era that shares more freely and seems to be less embarrassed by confession. Colleges should try brown bag discussions on FGS issues, which could introduce FGS to each other and to supportive staff. They should provide commuter student lounges and study spaces that work for these students, who need and deserve places to call their own. And, more than anything else, those of us FGS who are now faculty or administrators have to remember first-generation students, advocate for them and serve as mentors. We have the power to ease their transition. That is why we need to always identify ourselves as FGS and make our campuses spaces that make the journey a little easier for those holding the tension of their past and an uncertain future.
As FGS you need to accept where you come from; never be embarrassed or ashamed of that fact. Remember, those people love you and made you who you are. They may not be perfect, but, at the end of the day, whose family is? Don’t try to transcend your class origins; rather, bring those experiences into your new world. Take them with you and let them inform you, reminding you of the opportunity you have that others might not. And, most of all, make the road a little easier for those around you or behind you, walking the same path. Identify as a FGS and you will find that others will too. The more of you who speak up, the easier the journey.