As the first person in my family to go to college, I feel lucky to work in programs that support first-generation college students (first-gen) with similar experiences and barriers to my own growing up. While I can’t speak for everyone coming from this background, my experiences help provide me with a starting point to connect with almost any student who walks through my office door.
Efforts in Washington state have been implemented to see these students through the college experience and hopefully begin to close the resource gap that exists between their more privileged counterparts. Supporting college attendance by students who come from low-income households will help meet our state’s needs in developing an educated workforce. By 2021, an estimated 72 percent of available jobs will require at least a postsecondary credential, according to a paper published by the Washington Student Achievement Council (“A Skilled and Educated Workforce 2013 Update,” October 2013).
While we should continue to support first-gen students, finishing a post-secondary degree to compete in the job market is just one side of their struggles. As someone who finished my bachelor’s degree almost a decade ago, I can tell you that the struggle does not stop after graduation.
I faced two types of issues as a first-gen/low-income college student.
The first was of the academic kind: lack of study skills, direction and understanding of the college system.
On my first day of class in college in pre-calculus, I learned that I did not have the foundational skills needed to be successful in math needed for computer science. I also didn’t understand where to go to ask for help or what classes I could take to help me prepare.
The only option I saw was that I couldn’t study anything in science or technology.
I changed my major to English and decided that math and science were off limits.
The second type of issues came from my exposure to wealthier and more-educated social classes for the first time in my life. It was both a hilarious and sad realization that the closest thing to a family vacation I had ever been on was the time my parents rushed my brothers and me to the Filipino embassy in New Orleans to get my mother’s green card renewed for fear that she would be deported.
Sharing that story with peers at my predominately white college when asked about family vacations helped me realize that I was from a completely different world.
Other first-gen college students struggle with not feeling prepared to handle the challenges faced in college as well.
A study by the Pell Institute showed that while 42 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within four years, only 27 percent of first-generation students graduated within four years (Moving Beyond Access 2008).
Despite these challenges, I made it out of the college system with a Bachelor of Arts and even went on to get a master’s degree.
As I navigated the college system, my expectations of college life slowly became a more realistic picture.
My family, however, still sees completing college as this magnificent experience that immediately elevates the graduated intellectually and financially. This is not completely untrue as the difference in median salary of a college graduate to a high school graduate was $37,499 as reported by census data in 2003 (Census.gov).
I am expected to be the financial and informational link for all things outside of poverty to an entire generation of relatives. I would love to say that I am able to 100 percent deliver on this, but that is not realistic. And that’s where the guilt comes in.
It’s not uncommon for first-gen college students to be called a “sell out,” “bougie” or “too good” or any other insults meant to knock you down a peg by family members and friends who witnessed your transition into the world of the educated.
When you don’t have a spare $20 to lend your cousin, you’re now “forgetting about where you came from.” Offering advice on how to work toward self-sufficiency makes you a “know-it-all” or “white-acting.”
This guilt isn’t all external, but internal as well.
I still sometimes wish I could have made it in a technology or science field, where my wages would be higher and I could financially support more people in my family.
Even in my career, I sometimes feel I am still trying to catch up to those students who had more educational resources than I did growing up. But awareness of my own past shortcomings helps me connect students with resources to better prepare them for their education and career.
My advice for first-gen college students is to prepare yourself for leadership, whether you want to be or not. You are able to speak the language of the college and non-college world and this means we can help our community members navigate the system that we ourselves found frustrating and unforgiving.
To the community, it is important that we continue to support these students during their college education because of their ability to affect generational change. I am proof that first-gen college students can beat the odds and overcome barriers to college, but when we graduate we tend to inherit the barriers of the communities from which we came.
Justin Dampeer is the program manager of the Transition Success Center at Highline College. He also works in the community to help students prepare for college through the Seattle Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement rogram and Project Portfolio. He has been involved in student retention programs such as TRiO Student Support Services and Workforce Education.