“What We Can Learn from First-Generation College Students”

From ideas.time.com comes “What We Can Learn from First-Generation College Students.”  I think this is pretty spot-on, but I also think that it applies to a lot of “underprepared” students (and maybe their parents even went to college), and I think what’s key is to actually get the students to recognize these things in themselves.


One thought on ““What We Can Learn from First-Generation College Students”

  1. Judging by the comments on the article, it’s hard for a first generation student to recognize these traits, or to even be asked to reflect about the possibility of these traits without being offended and thus defensive.

    As a first generation college student, I can definitely relate to some of the struggles the article mentions. I’ll be transferring to EMU from JCC as an independent student, but after I left high school I did spend one bad year in an out-of-state college. I was a slacker of a high school student, but I was academically prepared for many of my courses as a result of my own reading and my dedication to a few demanding courses. Also, I was in high school cross-ex debate, which I cannot say enough good things about. My school was small, white, mostly working class, and lacked just about every form of diversity. But by being on the high school debate team I was exposed to intellectual ideas like Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Marxism, Objectivism, and much more. I was also exposed to students who came from wealthy schools and wealthy parents who had been going to college for generations. It was often awkward, but always illuminating. A lot of what I learned in debate were ideas I already had formulating in my own head, but to speak them seemed so absurd because I didn’t know anyone who thought the same things, or who was interested in learning about them (like, social order, capitalism as exploitation, the masking of racism, etc.). Debate provided me with the words I needed to articulate what I saw going on around me. It provided me with the names of super scholars who noticed some of the same things I did and who studied these problems and articulated their findings. I think that being exposed to these ideas helped provide me with a sort of social/class awareness when I came to college and allowed me to recognize the points the article is making. . . BUT I can’t say that just recognizing that was in and of itself a KEY to anything other than a nagging self-consciousness I still struggle with.

    Technically, when I dropped out of college it was because I had been injured and my parent’s HMO only covered treatment in Michigan. But even if that had not been the case, I would have still dropped out of school for several reasons. My first reason being my complete lack of knowledge about financial aid. My parents had no clue about filing, and although they filed taxes (at HR block, unfortunately) they didn’t keep great records, or even understand how to use them for financial aid. My other first generation college student friends experienced the same issues. When we were in school, we didn’t even realize that guidance counselors helped with these issues.

    One thing that I really didn’t understand about college life was the type of services available to students. After being injured, I was unable to make the one mile hike across campus for my speech class. Withdrawing from the class seemed like the only option. I didn’t even understand the concept of actually TALKING to someone about it, or trying to withdraw with exception.

    I did join a couple student groups, but I did find navigating the social and extracurricular scene difficult. For instance, I had no idea what “greek life” was outside of what I learned from Lifetime original movies where Tori Spelling binge drinks herself to death. Reading a poster about “rush” week was like reading a foreign language, and I regarded my pledging dorm mates with suspicion.

    Ten years later, I now understand what used to baffle me, and my understanding came almost entirely from my own research. Everything from financial aid to what courses to take to have a better chance at being accepted into a comparative lit grad program, came from many internet searches, reading everything from CHE, New York Times, College Confidential, and even professor’s blogs. And when I say “many” I do mean more than a years worth of regular reading when I found the time in between school and my full-time job. It seems like finding this information should be simpler.

    Also, I know a lot of first generation college students who aren’t exactly traditional students. Some may be young enough to be dependent, but they still live on their own, work full time jobs, and take night or online classes for at least the first two years. I know at my community college, a student like that misses out on many opportunities that aren’t mentioned to online or night class students (like presentations, exhibits, and other interactive learning activities that the school puts on). I think that students who are either confined to online or night classes, or even students who never take the opportunity to wander around campus, are only going to hear about announcements and various opportunities through email or website announcements. So if a school has a website that is difficult to navigate, or if the announcements are buried, then many students, but particularly first generation students, will miss them. And that can make it hard to get involved in school and to explore academic opportunities to the fullest.

    I do wish that more institutions tried to connect more with first generation students, transfer students, and non traditional students. And I’m not just talking about colleges, but even institutions like the New York Times who has these great articles and blogs about students applying to colleges, but unfortunately the colleges they’re applying to are Harvard and top tier private and public schools, which hardly reflects the experience of most students, first generation or not.


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