Reflecting on being a (former) first generation student

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Recently, there’s been a conversation going on at my university about first generation students. Much of this conversation reflects what I’ve seen in articles on sites like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed in the sense that it tends to frame first generation students in a particular way. According to this conversation, first generation have overcome a great deal of adversity, economic and otherwise, to get to where they are but that they are academically less prepared than their non-first gen peers and because of that they need some extra help. So efforts are being put into place to support these students, mostly focused on assisting them academically.

Now, I trust that the people who write about this population are basing their assumptions on research and statistics. And I fully endorse any effort to support students who have struggled or who are struggling, first generation or otherwise.

Yet there’s something about all of this that bothers me.

I was a first generation student. Sort of. My sister started college a few years before me but we went to different schools so I didn’t benefit much from the wisdom she’d gained from her experience. I had to figure out a lot about college life for myself. Textbooks, for example. I had no idea that you had to pay hundreds of dollars for your own textbooks every semester until the day I moved to campus. Somehow, no one had ever told me this even though my parents had been helping my sister pay for her books for at least two years before I had to pay for mine (which they also helped with).

So as a first generation student, there was a lot I didn’t understand about college life. Some of it was stuff I didn’t even know that I didn’t know until after I graduated. Like scholarships. I had a small merit scholarship that had been given to me automatically when I was accepted to my school but I didn’t realize until long after I’d started paying back my mountain of student loans that I could have probably gotten even more financial help if only I’d known to apply for it. A few years ago, a former colleague actually laughed at me when I told her that I had paid for college through loans rather than scholarships. She implied that I must not have been very smart back then, to not know about the whole scholarship thing.

The thing is, I was smart. I’d graduated fifth in my high school class (out of less than a hundred, but still) and my undergraduate GPA was over 3.8. Academically, I was pretty damn successful. Hell, that’s probably why I ended up in academia as a career.

It’s just that there were a lot of holes in my knowledge about how college worked. Ones other people couldn’t help me fill because I didn’t know what questions to ask or who to ask them to.

So I could have used a special program at my institution to help me figure it all out. But back then no one was talking about first generation students as a specific population with its own special needs, at least not that I knew of.

And even if they had been, I don’t know if I would have benefited from those conversations because I don’t know that I would have recognized myself as the type of student such conversations are generally aimed at, at least not if those conversations looked the way they do now.

Economically, my family was about on par with the Conner family as they were portrayed in the original version of Roseanne. We weren’t well off and there were definitely some times that were harder than others (maybe more so than I knew about as a kid) but generally we were okay. So I wouldn’t really describe my childhood as one where I experienced adversity, economic or otherwise.

I went to high school in a mostly white rural area where graduation and college weren’t exactly assumed for everyone. Yet I never questioned the idea that I would go to college one day. I mean, I assumed that I would spend a few years in a community college first, like many of my classmates, but someone (I think my guidance counselor) talked me into going straight to a four year school instead. So I didn’t have any challenges there, either. College was not a distant possibility to me; it was an assumed part of my path.

And like I said before, I was pretty successful, academically speaking. Adjusting to the amount of work that was expected from me in college was definitely a challenge (as I imagine it is for almost all students) but I never struggled with grades.

So as a former first generation student, I don’t have much in common with the accepted image of a first generation student today. It could be that this is because the statistics have simply changed. For me, college was a long time ago. It was probably a lot less unusual back then than it is now to have parents who had never gone to college. Even if that’s not the case, the economic implications of not having a college degree are a lot different now than they were back in the day. By the time I was in high school, both my parents had landed steady, reasonably well-paying jobs despite their lack of college education. Today, the companies they work for would never hire anyone who didn’t have at least a Bachelor’s degree.

Maybe it makes sense, then, to aim our conversations and services about first generation students toward those who have overcome adversity to be where they are and who perhaps do struggle. These students certainly deserve that help and that attention.

But I wonder about the kids who are more like I was, few though they may be. Even if they aren’t struggling academically or financially (whether with the help of financial aid or otherwise), they could probably use some help with navigating college life. Or even just identifying where the holes in their knowledge about college might be. Like I said before, I didn’t know a lot of what I didn’t know about college until long after I graduated. I was successful in the long run but I really could have used someone to help me better understand the ins and outs of being a college student, including figuring out financial aid (before, during, and after college) and how to apply to grad school or what grad school even was(1).

So I think we’re right to focus the conversation about first generation students on those who need the most help but I do worry about leaving out the kids who may not look like they need help but who, like I did, probably just don’t know what questions to ask or who to ask them to.


(1) Seriously, I didn’t know. An advisor once told me that my writing was good enough that I had a good chance of getting into an MFA program if I wanted. Half the reason I didn’t end up doing this was because I didn’t know what an MFA program was, much less how to find and apply to one. If the English department at my institution offered help with figuring all of this out, I didn’t know it. It ended up taking me three years after college to apply to grad school (for an MSIS) and even then I was mostly just guessing at what I needed to do to get there. Let me tell you, finding out the GRE was a thing and that it was going to cost me upwards of $300 (at the time) to take it was a whole lot of not fun.

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