Whuddup. My name’s Jasmine and I’m a first-year (pending) Computer Science major at Scripps College in SoCal. I’m a first generation student, and that’s pretty cool [insert a catchy thumbs-up and wink duo here]. I’m here to tell you what exactly that means and why it’s important…because it is.
Who is a “first generation” college student?
In general, being a first generation college student means that you’re the first in your family to go to college, but this is pretty vague, so the definitions vary a little from college to college. According to Chapman University, a first-gen student is “a student whose parent(s)/legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university,” and most colleges have adopted this definition. That means, for most universities, if your parents didn’t even graduate from high school, if they did but didn’t go to college, if they did but didn’t graduate from college, or if they did but they only went on to receive an associate’s degree, you are still most likely classified as a first generation college student. Even if your older sibling went to college–even if your Aunt Judy or your great-great-great-grandmother on your mom’s side or basically any other member of your family graduated from a four-year university–you are still considered a first generation student if neither of your parents received a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution. I’m not really sure why it’s specifically defined this wayat most universities…but, hey, I don’t make the rules.
The First Gen Experience & Why It Matters
Of course my experience is not every other first gen student’s experience, so I cannot speak for an entire population of people; I can only speak for myself. So keep that in mind. However, there are similarities between first gen students.
Although not every first gen student is low-income, and not every low-income student is first gen, many first gen students are low-income. With this, I ask you a question: why do you want to go to college? Why do your parents want you to go to college? Why is “you can go be a bartender in England, but… college first” a thing? The easy answer is this: the economy and the job market. Although going to college to get an education and learn awesome things is a great motivation in itself, basically every college student is only spending so much money to go to college because it’s an investment. In today’s workforce, a college degree is basically essential to a job, financial security, and, therefore, happiness (not my personal belief, but… y’know what I’m sayin’).
Your parents want you to grow up and be able to support yourself, which is, well, pretty reasonable, right? My parents want that for me, too, because they didn’t have that. According to this study by the University of Minnesota, more than 60% of first gen college students come from households with an income that’s less than $49,999 a year. By today’s standards, that’s not very much. College is important to my family and I because we want a better, more financially stable future with more opportunities, and that’s exactly what a college degree is seemingly equal to (although that debate is for a whole different article).
First gen students are also at a sort of disadvantage in college. According to this FAQ from I’m First, a program dedicated to helping first-generation college students, “89% of [first-gen] students will not earn a bachelor’s degree six years out from high school” and “[first-gen students] drop out of college at four times the rate of their peers whose parents have a postsecondary education.” So basically, we have a harder time graduating from college, and, in my opinion, I think this is because of the different environments we are raised in compared to our non-first-gen peers.
For example, I went to the best high school in my area, but even though it was the best in the area, it still only offered fewer than 10 AP classes, lacked an IB program, and didn’t have a very high on-time graduation rate. So it’s arguable that even though I excelled at my high school, I still am not as prepared as some of my more privileged peers, graduating from elite private schools, who have already heard of Michel Foucault, Dean Spade, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and other scholars I’ve only just been introduced to.
Similar to this idea, it’s arguable that first-gen students don’t speak the same “language” as non-first gen students. Of course we speak English, yes, but I mean “language” in a different sense. While my parents, having not gone to college, don’t have very “high-ranking” jobs (my mother works in the fast food industry and my father is a contractor/tile setter), my college peers’ parents are doctors, engineers, and professors.
Because of the differences in our backgrounds, we’ve been exposed to different “languages,” or ideas, while growing up. My family doesn’t speak with correct grammar. I’m likely to learn about how one goes about laying a tiled kitchen floor or handling eight very angry, very hungry, very impatient fast food customers at once through my parents’ stories when they come home every night.
However, my roommates’ parents are educated, speak well, hold very high positions at very respectable companies, have lectured at fancy meetings and forums and the like, and my roommates have probably grown up learning about the Prison Industrial Complex, cancer research, non-binary genders, or other things that are considered “valuable knowledge,” with diction found at higher education institutions because their parents learned these things, or found their love for studying these things there. Unlike mine, who, to be honest, probably don’t know genders outside of “man” and “woman” exist. Because I was raised by parents who don’t know of these things, I’d never heard of them before I stepped foot on Scripps’ campus. For my peers, it’s not the same story.
Of course, these differences are not bad things–I can fault no one on what social position or privilege they were born into. However, these differences are not exclusive to only my roommates and I. Many, many first-gen college students face similar class, gender, and racial differences that make it difficult to feel like their experiences are valid and celebrated in such a community. This is what leads to higher drop-out rates and the like, and this is why I’m writing this article: to encourage you to help support these students. Feeling alienated, out of place, different, as if you don’t belong, as if you’re not smart enough, etc. are regular feelings for first-generation college students.
Leonida Radford, a fellow first-year at Scripps College, wrote a piece about her experiences as a first gen student at Scripps which sums these ideas up quite well, in which she said, “When I came to Scripps, I couldn’t help but feel inadequate compared to these intelligent women in my classes, even though I had taken the AP classes offered at my school. I felt as if I was unable to contribute to the conversations we had in Core about Genet and Foucault. It was as if my public school education meant nothing and Scripps made a mistake in accepting me into the Class of 2017. […] This semester, I intend to speak up more and not be afraid of what I have to say in class. What I think deserves to be heard. […] With this in mind, I understand that I am able to bring multiple perspectives into the conversation amongst my classmates and recognize that this in itself holds value.“
More Awesome Articles & Resources
If you want to learn more about first generation college students, issues they face, and the like, look at some of these really great links:
- An article about first-gen challenges from Diverse Education
- An article about lessons which can be learned from the first-gen experience
- AFAQ from I’m First, an organization which aids first-gen students with everything to do with college (they also have a scholarship for first-gen students to look into here!)
- An article with tips for first-gen students from the New York Times
- A“field guide” for first-gen students by Fastweb
- QuestBridge (if you’re first-gen and don’t know about this program yet, you need to)
- Even a 2013 report from College Board itself!
P.S. Make sure to check on how the schools you’re applying to define being a first gen student, since the definitions do vary. And if you are classified as one, see if they have any sort of program for first gen students. I know the first gen student program at Scripps has basically been my rock during the last two semesters, and most of my friends (like Leonida, who is quoted right up there) I made through the program. If your school doesn’t have one, look into making your own program when you get to campus!