First Gen College Experiences

Last week, while having lunch with some friends, I mentioned my work with the First Gen College project. One friend, a psychologist, quickly piped up, “I’m a first gen.” She shared that nobody in her family was particularly interested in whether or not she went to college, and the challenges of trying to figure it all out herself. She recalled that by the time she got to her PhD program, when she sent her completed dissertation to her mother, she responded with disbelief. “You didn’t write this. You couldn’t have written this!”

Now that I am on my Northern California college road trip, my focus has been on young people. As I interview them, I am hearing over and over about their efforts to access college, attend and graduate, and launch careers when their families don’t have the expertise to provide specific guidance.

I have spent the last sixteen years encouraging and guiding students through the maze of college selection, applications, and scholarships. I have been happy to answer questions, to help them connect with professionals I know in fields that interest them, and to just listen and be supportive as they try to find their way in uncharted waters.

Sometimes these young people feel like imposters when they arrive at college, like they don’t belong. They see their college peers seeming so much better prepared, so much more adroit at navigating the college process, so much less disoriented by the new environment. For many, this is their first experience meeting peers with wealth and privilege that is unimaginable to them.

I reassure them that their experiences are normal, that they are resourceful and resilient, that they have many skills and tools that can help them adjust, and that they can persevere and succeed. That’s not to say it won’t be challenging, or painful at times, but I know that they can do it.

Some also tell me about their difficulties explaining their experiences to their parents, and their fears that they are drifting apart as their world becomes so much broader, and as some family members are put off or intimidated by their academic advancement.

Yet beyond the challenges, many of these students express their excitement about the ways they have grown as a result of their time in college. They are struck by the new ideas and people they have been exposed to, and by feeling empowered as they begin to find their voice and their place in this new world.

With my focus on these young people, I had almost forgotten that there are many professional adults in the world who were the first in their families to navigate the terrain of higher education. And some of them are in my social and professional networks. Many of the challenges of being the first to venture into higher education were the same for them, even if their experiences with college may have been years ago, or if their parents are American born, or if they were raised in middle class families.

Part of my hope with First Gen College is to connect those dots.

It is my hope that young people navigating the college process will appreciate the stories of their first gen peers. I hope they will begin realizing that some of their professors, their doctors, or other professional adults in their world may also be first generation college. I hope this will make it easier for them to see themselves and their futures more clearly, and help them feel bolder about telling their stories, and more comfortable reaching out for support from these people and others.

Professional adults, established in their careers, who were first generation college students, may gain new insights into their own histories as they hear some of these stories. I hope they will think about ways they can be a resource for current first gen students.

I hope that those who have benefited from parents with college degrees will gain insight and understanding into some of the challenges that others, with different circumstances, face in college today.

And I hope that all of you, first gen or not, will recognize something of yourself in the young people on this site and their stories, that you will share these resources with others, and that you will gain greater insight into some of the challenges and successes of first-generation college students in this time and place.

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