I was a first generation college student. Not only had my parents not gone to college, but nobody else in my family had gone to college either. I was the first.
I never thought it was a big deal. My parents and everybody else around me made it very clear that college was just what came after high school, just like middle school came after elementary school. When I went to college, I didn’t say anything about it because I thought there were others like me. But no, the second I started having trouble at Undergrad U, suddenly it was a BIG DEAL that I was a first generation student.
The counseling center enrolled me in a special program for first generation students. The program offered a lot of services (free tutoring, special sessions with financial aid, pamphlets to send home to parents) that I’m SURE helped other students, but they weren’t of any use to me. I was a white girl raised in an affluent area. Probably the most awkward moment was when I was sitting in a session about diversity…as the only white girl. Everybody kept staring at me like I didn’t belong in the program, like I was some sort of spy for the non-first generation students. Shortly after that I just stopped going to anything the program had to offer.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I learned more about first generation students any why they need more support than non-first generation students. It was also during grad school that I felt like some sort of zoo animal. I was the only first generation student in my class and everybody kept asking me all sorts of questions. The one I hated the most? “What’s it like to be a first generation student?” “Oh I don’t know…what’s it like to not?”
One time I brought up this issue with my mom and she got mad. She also didn’t think it was a big deal. I told her that I didn’t think it was a big deal either and thought that was going to be that but it seems once every few months she brings it up again except she turns me into the bad person. Basically she thinks that by my bringing that topic up, I feel that my parents disadvantaged me by not going to college. Um. No. That’s not why I brought it up, I brought it up because it was something that came up in class.
Just like anything else, you can’t make assumptions based on a certain status. Helping first generation students IS important, but you have to find out more information about each student’s situation before helping them. If the counseling center or even the program coordinator would have talked to me, they could have directed me to workshops that did apply to me.
What are some program your institution has in place for first generation students? What are some of the challenges you face in your department when working with first generation students?