Happy First Generation College Student Day. If you don’t know what today is, don’t feel bad. It is fairly new but very much important. On November 8, 2017, the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Center for First-Generation Student Success launched the very first, First-Gen College Celebration. While long overdue, I am excited that we are getting the celebratory recognition that we so much deserve. Far too often and for far too long, any and every piece of literature regarding First-Gen students lumps us in to a group of individuals that are all to vulnerable and susceptible to a myriad of distractions that could deter us from post-secondary education. Our stories are far greater, much richer, more complex and unique than the data. Here, I want to share my First-Gen story – I’ll try to keep it short 🙂
I graduated from high school in May of 2008. I would say I had a fairly easy high school education. I always strived for straight A’s, always involved in some after school activity and vying for leadership roles. I was the senior class Vice President, on prom court, and graduated with a 4.3 GPA. I never really had to try. I would do homework, listen to music, eat, watch tv, and text all at the same time. I was regarded as the student who didn’t need assistance which in hindsight, was the onset of many educational challenges I would have in the future. There is a huge misconception that high achieving students are often given preferential treatment by teachers and counselors, but that wasn’t my experience. I wasn’t given information about college reps visiting the school or scholarship opportunities. I had to research that on my own. I’m sure the preferential treatment was given to my white classmates considering I went to a predominately white school – but that’s another convo for another day.
I grew up middle class. Both of my parents had pretty decent jobs so we never really needed for anything and “access” (or what I would consider access) wasn’t an issue. It was awareness and information that set me behind the 8 ball. Granted, my parents valued education and supported me in my efforts to apply and enroll in college, but I had to take the lead and inform them of the little that I knew. I handled my business all throughout high school so they never questioned my efforts or double checked to see if anything I was doing was actually correct – they trusted me.
The FAFSA, I had to learn that on my own; best fit/match, I didn’t know the importance of that back then; tuition cost, I’ll just take out loans – I was just shooting and seeing what stuck (thank God for provision). I decided to go to the University of Missouri – Columbia (Mizzou) to feel like I was sort of far away, but close enough to get back home if needed. Little did I know, if I felt high school was a breeze, college was going to be the complete opposite.
2nd semester of my freshman year of college, I was pregnant with my baby girl. So now, not only am I a First-Gen college student but I am a student-parent with a whole new set of unique needs that more often than not, were never left unaddressed. At 5 months, I moved back home with my parents to get support in raising Addy while still taking classes at a local university. When my daughter was 15 months, I came back to Mizzou with my daughter on my hip. Freshman year by myself was challenging but it held no weight to parenting and going to school full-time.
My remaining years in undergrad consisted of financial aid appeals, gathering 343,943 pieces of documentation for my FAFSA since I was independent, food stamps, WIC, TANF, one-on-ones with professors, tutoring, on-campus jobs flexible with my schedule, daycare, bringing my kid to class, creating student groups to find other students with similar lifestyles to feel supported as a first-gen/student parent and the list goes on and on and on. This continued on to my graduate school experience as well, except this time I was GROWN grown. Didn’t make the challenges any less harsh (being a first-gen graduate student deserves its on post – not today)
First-Generation college students do not have monolithic experiences but our pride, drive, will, tenacity, relentless pursuit of completion, repeated episodes of imposter syndrome and an on-going desire to pour into other First-Gen students make our journeys that much more similar. We aren’t basket cases, we aren’t at-risk youth in need of a savior, we aren’t data-fillers and quota reachers. We deserve a quality education and to receive the same amount of nurturing support as your legacy/pay-tuition-out-of-pocket/75th-generation college students. We bring diversity to the classroom and workforce and are more apt to be of service to others because we know what it’s like to start from scratch and have to just “figure it out.”
If I were to define my college experience in one sentence, it would be “trial-and-error.” There was no road map laid out before me or a book full of advice from family members on how to navigate college because they didn’t know either. But this experience helped shaped so much of my life and I am forever grateful for this experience. Most importantly, my daughter will now have the opportunity as well as the access that I did not have. Even if she chooses not to pursue post-secondary education, she will be equipped to make an informed decision and won’t have to shoot and see what sticks.
*To read more about Addy and I’s experience at Mizzou, read here
Cheers to the First-Gens! Today is FOR US!