first-generation college student

what is so different?

I am a first-generation college student. I am defined as an individual who is currently enrolled in an institution of higher education and whose parents did not obtain a four-year college degree. I am the first in my family to go to college, and not just any college, but an Ivy League university. The question remains, why does this make me different? So my parents didn’t go to college, but why should that matter if I’m here now?

The fact of the matter is that there are significant disadvantages to being a first-gen college student. While it is estimated that about 30 percent of college students in America are first-gen, 89 percent of this population will not earn a bachelor’s degree six years after finishing high school. First-gen students drop out of college at rates four times those of their non-first-gen peers. Why? Well, it’s complicated. There are myriad reasons behind these statistics, many of which are systemic and self-reinforcing.

Recently I attended 1vyG, the inaugural inter-Ivy conference for first-gen and low-income students, where 250 students and 25 faculty members gathered on Brown’s campus to discuss the difficulties of being first-gen at an elite university and what we can do about them. After attending the conference, I came away with the conclusion that there are three areas in which first-gens are inherently more likely to struggle: academic preparation, resource availability, and cohesion of identity.

To begin, many first-gen students are also low-income students, and may not have had access to a secondary education of the same caliber as non-first gen students. Personally, I could not have afforded to attend a competitive private school where emphasis is placed on standardized testing and college preparation. I am fortunate in the fact that the public school I went to prepared me well for the academic rigors of college, but I know many first-gen students who cannot say the same. I recently made the acquaintance of one such student, born in Zimbabwe and now attending Harvard, who told me that he received failing grades on the first three papers he wrote because he simply didn’t understand what was expected of him. Academic struggles can aggravate the sense of isolation and inadequacy experienced by many first-gen students. When everyone around you seems to be perfectly capable of handling the academic pressure, you can only assume there’s something wrong with you, and that you don’t truly belong. It’s easy to overlook the reality that you’re not competing on a level playing field.

What was even more upsetting about my friend from Harvard was that on top of his problems, he didn’t know who to turn to for help. This anecdote illustrates the fact that by virtue of being first-gen, we are automatically placed at a disadvantage to non-first-gen students with regard to seeking resources on college campuses and in the professional world. Without parents who have gone through college themselves, we can’t count on our most trusted advisors to help us navigate these new arenas. One extreme case of privilege here at Brown is that of a legacy student whom I know personally. Both his parents went to Brown, and though he didn’t have good grades in high school, his father secured him a private meeting with the Dean of Admissions. He basically sweet-talked his way into this school, and now that he’s here, he spends most of his time smoking and drinking, doesn’t go to class, and passes with Cs. At the end of his freshman year, one of his father’s political connections secured him an internship in a congressman’s office in D.C. In comparison, I finished my freshman year with a 3.5 GPA and no internship prospects because, firstly, I didn’t have the same (or any) connections, and secondly, it was simply not feasible for me to spend an entire summer without pay. At the request of my parents, I went home and worked. Yet when it comes time to search for post-college jobs, the (in my opinion) less honest work experience of this student will stand out in comparison to mine.

The factors I have discussed so far can be measured objectively, but the next aspect of difficulty for first-gens is inherently subjective and, I would argue, the most important contributing element in the struggle of first-gens to adapt to college life. The issue arises from the separation of the self between two seemingly incompatible worlds, and the crisis of identity that arises from this. Most first-gen students come from areas where pursuit of higher education is not a priority and where their friends and families often cannot understand their decision to leave. But we do leave, only to submerge ourselves in an unfamiliar setting with entirely different values than those we have learned to appreciate and strive for. For example, where I come from, starting in a varsity game was better received than a report card with all As. And like I already said, coming home to go to work was regarded more highly than finding an internship. At Brown, though, students seem to respect one another for different qualities.

There is this unspoken competition to be as busy as humanly possible, to overcommit yourself in every aspect of your life, to be involved. Somehow, you are expected to succeed in attempting to do everything at once. I remember, a few weeks after moving in, listening to the kids on my floor compare their schedules: “I’m doing four clubs and walking onto the crew team,” “I’m going to double-concentrate in CS and Biochem,” “I only slept for four hours last night.”

The first semester of my freshman year I did not participate in a single extracurricular activity. I was having enough trouble adjusting as it was, and also I just didn’t realize how important Brown students considered this attribute. “What are you involved with on campus?” was the third question posed during introductions, right after “Where are you from?” and “What are you concentrating in?” And if you didn’t have a list of about four or five commitments, you’d more likely than not receive a condescending shrug and eye roll, and never speak to that person again.

It can be difficult for everyone to become accustomed to college life. I’m not saying that this feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity is unique to first-gen students. What makes it especially difficult for us to adjust, however, is that our attempted acculturation occurs simultaneously with the crumbling of our former value system. We have left behind the norms of home but we haven’t yet adopted those of our peers. We are left somewhere in between, no longer laying claim to any principles that we truly consider our own. This can be disconcerting, to say the least. Without knowing what it is exactly that we’re aiming for, it can be altogether too easy to lose a sense of direction and purpose.

These aren’t the ramblings of an emotionally stricken teenage girl. The sentiments I have described above are supported in sociological theory, to which I was exposed during a session at 1vyG. Gregory Elliott, a professor of sociology here at Brown, delivered a profound lecture on this topic. I’m about to get a little technical, but bear with me, because what I’m about to say is incredibly important.

Elliott begins by explaining two concepts of identity: community and individual, both based on the idea of mattering. I’ve already touched upon community identity, wherein you are part of a group with a shared sense of values, and your worth is determined by your ability to adhere to these values. In comparison, individual identity is the notion that you, as a person, matter, based on what you can contribute to society. This unspoken hierarchy is determined by socioeconomic status.

Socioeconomic status, then, is influenced by three components, from least to most important: income, educational attainment, and occupational attainment. The interesting thing about socioeconomic status is that it tends to perpetuate among families. This is because parents of different levels of socioeconomic status utilize different methods of child rearing, which instill in children different outlooks on life.

Take, for example, a parent who tells their child to “stop,” as opposed to a parent who says, “Honey, when you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, I can’t hear Aunt Mary on the phone.” These two approaches to reprimanding will have different impacts on the children’s perceptions of mattering. The child in the second case will be much more likely to recognize that his actions directly influence those around him, and that what he does affects more people than just himself. The first child, however, is less likely to realize this, which is significant because initial mentalities in children manifest later in life as different styles of learning. While the second child is likely to become an active learner with a belief in the importance of his participation in the classroom, the first child is likely to become a passive learner. He will have a predisposition to believe that no matter the effort he exerts, he cannot change eventual outcomes. He will generally be less interested in school and try less, thereby influencing his educational attainment, which in turn influences his occupational attainment. The levels he eventually reaches in these categories will generally be less than those of his active-learner peers, granting him a lower socioeconomic status. When he has children, he will likely use the same parenting techniques as were used on him. His children are therefore likely to achieve the same socioeconomic status, and send their children down the same path, creating an endless cycle.

The point of all this is that as first-gen students, we have broken the cycle. Somewhere along the way, we acquired the qualifications and the motivation to achieve a higher level of educational attainment than our parents. The issue arises in this transition from lower to higher socioeconomic status, and what it means in terms of our sense of identity. We are experiencing less and less an identity of community, as the things we are doing no longer have any meaning at home. Elliott, a first-gen himself, sent home to his parents a copy of the first paper he published, to which they replied that they were very proud of him but couldn’t understand his writing. They asked him not to send any more papers. This is happening to the first-gen community as a whole. We find that our parents, the people we have looked up to all our lives, are aware of and uncomfortable about our shifting status. The only identities we know are disappearing before our eyes.

What we have left is individual identity. We will be valued as greater contributors to society, wherever that leaves us. But is it worth it if we have to give up our identity of community? Elliott ended his lecture by telling us that assuming our individual identity and adapting to the norms of our new socioeconomic status is the greatest challenge we will have to face. And if we really want to, we will play the game. But we will never forget our roots.