As a first-generation college student, expectations for my educational future were low. The label “first-generation college student” applies to someone whose parents never achieved a bachelor’s degree. Typically, first-generation students come from lower-class backgrounds and are more likely to be racial/ethnic minorities. According to research, first-generation college students lack someone with first-hand knowledge of how to navigate the college application process, understand financial aid, and select the best fit, which often results in their choosing less selective schools, acquiring more debt and ultimately making them more likely to drop out.
With that said … I’m an anomaly. As a first-generation student I acquired my bachelor’s degree in 4 years with debt, but I didn’t stop there. I went on to obtain a Master’s degree and now sit one year from finishing a doctorate at a research-intensive university. I am not sure what this accomplishment will mean to my family, but every time I think about how far I have come, I get all teary-eyed. I cannot wait for the day I get to walk out of my doctoral defense and announce that I have passed! My parents will be proud and they will more than likely show it by using their favorite saying, “I wonder if she doesn’t belong to us.” Of course, someone with a PhD doesn’t belong to this family. So not only was it a challenge to be the outsider in academia; it also changed my relationships at home.
While the transition to college is difficult for most students, the experience can be even more difficult and traumatic for first-generation students who attend a university with few other first-generation students. Higher education has been for the more elite in America, so first-generation college students often experience culture shock. I attended a private, legacy-filled 4-year institution and that was my experience.
Ways that I knew I was different:
At Christmas my freshman year I opened a number of packages from Abercrombie and Fitch. Afterwards, I asked my mom why. She said, “Your dad says you don’t look like the other girls.” See, he worked as staff on campus and he felt it was obvious I didn’t fit in.
Conversations with college classmates included discussions about applying to big name schools or expensive private institutions that I had never considered or thought were necessary or even heard of.
Oh and my favorite phrase that was used whenever I was doing something considered “unclassy” or “too honest”: You can take the girl out of SSP, but you can’t take the SSP out of the girl!
The way we used money or think about money (or don’t): By the time I was a junior I was on my own. I paid for rent, fun, clothes, school, etc. all on my own. But that was not the experience of many classmates or housemates. Some had monthly money coming in, or didn’t pay for tuition, or never took out loans or connected with a great business to get an internship that paid $20/hour. With disposable income it was easier to make choices like spending Spring Break in Mexico or hosting a huge party for New Year’s, etc. I was horrible at allowing myself to miss any fun, so sometimes I made the poor choice and I chipped in to host the party or went to Mexico, when really I needed to save my money or put it towards something else. I spent a lot of time feeling immensely stressed about money.
The conversations about family trips to exotic places or new cars or shopping trips with lots of purchases of name brands were especially hard for me to handle. I always felt insecure and was not aware of the brands or the status that came with said things. This world was new to me and really hard for me to understand, yet I was so incredibly envious of it.
How I survived and thrived:
I became involved. As Tinto says, you have to become engaged with the campus. I decided to join student activities and because of that I found a group of friends. Then I also joined the service learning group. I went on service trips to various parts of the country to help ground me and remind me how good I had it.
I’m tenacious. I have what the new phrase is – Grit. It’s hard to hold me back and once I decide I want to do something I want to do it right now and well.
I tried to blend in. I did my best not to let my roots show and when they did I laughed at myself along with the others. I was once given this compliment, “You could be at a dinner party one day and hanging with ‘hood’ rats the next.” The crazy part is the dinner party setting terrifies me way more.
I got a job and a credit card, and I worked two jobs every summer just to save up enough for living expenses. I became a resident advisor one year to have my room and board free. I also became a team leader on the service trips, so I didn’t have to pay participant fees. I saw ways to save money by putting in my time and that’s what I did.
The issues didn’t go away with graduate school,
but I realize what I learned in undergraduate has helped me press forward in my doctoral program. In fact, my work in my doctoral program focuses on finding ways to deepen the access and increase success and increasing the number of underrepresented students in postsecondary education. I primarily focus on the relationship between K-12 and higher education with an emphasis on how high schools set up and prepare students for college by creating a “college-going culture”. I realize now how much my own experience has impacted this work.
It wasn’t easy and it didn’t come without adjustments, doubts, and insecurities … as many first-generation students can tell you, being educated impacts your relationships in your family and changes your identity.
Overall, I wouldn’t be satisfied without achieving my PhD. I announced my junior year in high school that I would be a professor some day. Sure, I had no idea what that entailed, but I thought it sounded cool. I am proud of myself for continuing my education, for working through difficulties, and for knowing myself well enough to realize that quitting was never an option. The thought of walking out of my defense and announcing to my parents, husband, and kids that you can now call me “Dr. Trost” is enough for me.
Reading recommendations (clicking the links will find the copy nearest you!):
- Completing College : Rethinking Institutional Action, by Vincent Tinto
- Proving and Improving : Tools and Techniques for Assessing the First College Year, by Randy L. Swing
- The Power of Grit, Perseverance, and Tenacity (article), by E.K. Laursen
- First in my Family : A Profile of First-generation College Students at Four-year Institutions since 1971, by Victor B. Saenz
About the Author
Jennifer Trost is the Acting Associate Director of the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship.