I am a first generation college graduate. Both my parents came from working class immigrant families.They tried attending college night classes while working but found it too hard to continue. As a result, they always encouraged and expected me, to get a college degree, and they were extremely supportive. Going to a school like Rutgers made it easier to be first generation as many students there were just like me. I worked part-time while I was there, as did all my friends, to help cover expenses for school and to earn a little spending money. It helped to have friends in college whose experiences were like mine, but it was also incredibly eye-opening meeting people who were completely different from me in their upbringing and other experiences. I grew a lot in those four years.
There were times I realized how students with college-educated parents had some advantages that I lacked. For instance, when I applied to colleges, (understandably) there was little guidance my parents could give me, and even less when I applied to grad school. As a result, I felt like I was flying blind on where to apply and what to say in my applications. In retrospect I was lucky to have gotten into good schools. I was also not very familiar with many aspects of academic life. When I received word that I had been chosen for Phi Beta Kappa, I had no idea what it was at first and didn’t think it was worth the membership fee! (Actually, I think my mom had more of a clue on that one than I did.) In many other ways, though, I am grateful to be first generation. It taught me not to take anything for granted and the value (and expectation) of hard work; I also learned how to rely on myself and figure things out, which is a like-long skill. There was no comfortable safety net for me if I didn’t make it work.
My advice to first generation students is not to be afraid to find what it is that you want to study and to embrace it, even if your family doesn’t initially get it. When I’d see my aunts and uncles at gatherings, and they heard I was a History major, they’d often ask “What are you going to do with that?” Had I listened to them and found a more “marketable” major, I wouldn’t have enjoyed college half as much or performed so well academically. It helps to follow your passion and to be open to the possibilities of where it will take you rather than settle on a path that isn’t your choosing. Your parents will be proud no matter what — mine were, even though I didn’t go to law school like my mom always expected.
Last piece of advice as a first-generation student and as a faculty member: never feel like you can’t come to your instructors for extra help, guidance, clarification, or advice. It doesn’t mean you are weak or unintelligent. On the contrary, it shows us you are thinking hard about your work and care. We really want to help!