Personal, Psychology, Representation

Was I a First-Gen Student? (Is the Answer Important?)

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts in my Twitter feed from “first-gen” college students, which got me thinking about my own experiences in academia. My answer is … complicated.

Depending on how one defines “college”, I may or may not be a first-gen student in my family. My maternal grandfather took courses at some sort of technical school after graduating from high school, but I don’t know anything beyond that and don’t have anyone to ask about it. This was probably in the late 1920s, so accreditation was quite different from what it is now. If anyone on my father’s side went to college, it’s several generations up that side of the family tree.

My answer will differ depending on how one defines “generation”, too. My mother was my grandparents’ oldest child (of 7); I know one of her sisters earned a master’s degree, and it’s possible at least one other sibling earned a bachelor’s degree. I was almost certainly alive when my aunt earned her master’s but would have been fairly young; but she went to school in Minnesota (where my grandfather was born and lived until early adulthood) and all her immediate family lived in Ohio. The point is that I got no helpful information or stories about university life from anyone in my family, neither before I started school nor at any point during any of my education.

So I do consider myself a first-gen college student and a first-gen graduate student, whether others would or not. To me, the most important criterion is whether I had information and support from others in my family to help me. I did not.

I did have a boyfriend who was two years older than I; I went to the same university he did. I don’t remember getting a lot of emotional support from him … I do remember making some embarrassing mistakes when trying to connect with professors during my first year.

Back in those days, though, the label “first-gen” didn’t exist. Everyone was expected to need to adjust to university life to some degree or other, just as today. I expected it to be difficult for me, in large part because my high-school guidance counselors told me I wasn’t suited for academia (I was) and then that I probably wouldn’t get accepted at my first choice school (I did).

The messages I remember receiving were “You don’t really belong there” and “It will be hard for you”, so my being first-gen or not didn’t mean anything to me. That was just an unimportant demographic detail at the time.

Now that I’ve taught over 1,000 students over 30-some years and in a wide variety of educational settings, I have a deep and nuanced appreciation for what being a first-gen student can mean. Faculty and staff know that first-gen students may appreciate extra guidance and support, especially during their first year. Visibility of other first-gen students is important too, if only because it helps people feel less alone. Just knowing that others like oneself are around helps people feel supported. Being able to connect and work through things with them is even better.

Telling students that I was first-gen gave them a richer context for viewing me as a person beyond being their instructor. Several told me that knowing that helped them feel more comfortable coming to me with questions or for support. I felt like almost all of my academic training was a stressful, uphill battle, and I wanted to do whatever I could to minimize that for my students. I wanted to be a good representative of a successful first-gen student … who came from a poor, blue-collar family … and who is a woman. I didn’t see anyone like me throughout my education (quite possibly because representation wasn’t thought about as much), which added both to my stress and my determination to succeed.

Social psychology and mental health-care research both support the importance of visibility and representation in academia and workplaces. First-gen students at each level and in each field of study are helped by seeing others like them who successfully walked the path they’re starting on.

I think a lot of students whose parents attended university might have some similar feelings to first-gen students; that’s especially true if their parents haven’t talked to them about college life and academics in particular. So even though I see the value in using the first-gen label, I’m not terribly hung up on precision. There’s a lot of potential overlap between someone who is truly first-gen and others who don’t fit the definition but still don’t know much about how academia works.

In my karate training, the phrase “beginner’s mind” was used to describe novices to martial arts. It relates whenever we start something new, and even more so when the new thing is further out of our comfort zone. Even though my first-gen college and grad school days are long behind me, I remember very well how it all felt, and how important any bit of empathy was to me. I’m happy to pay that forward whenever I can. It’s great to see first-gen people being open about it and getting support from others as they start down their own paths.

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