On Being First-Gen…Sort Of

中文 (简体)

By Laurel Kennedy, Vice President for Student Development

There has been lots of attention lately to the unique challenges of being a first-generation college student. One article concluded by calling on colleges and universities to ensure that their faculty and staff include members who were first-generation college students in their day.

Whether I was technically a first-gen college student depends on the definition we’re using. Some institutions identify a student as “first-generation” if neither of their parents attended college, ever. Some look at whether a parent graduated from college. One institution has many different categories—one parent versus two, attended versus graduated, etc.

Parental experience with higher education is considered important because it correlates with academic retention and success. There are lots of reasons: students whose parents also went to college usually have higher incomes, and thus can better afford both the upfront and the hidden costs of college. They attend colleges that suit their interests and needs because their parents could help them choose a school that fits their interests and aptitudes. They experience greater academic success because education was more often hardwired into their home life and because their parents have been through the academic rigors of college and can offer more help—with papers but also with critical decisions, like what to major in.

My story is a little bit complex. My mother graduated from college and provided the early socialization and acculturation about college-going. Still, we weren’t raised expecting to go. My brother, the oldest and the only son, did: he graduated from a state college in Mankato, Minnesota, 75 miles from home. My two sisters, next in line, did not. One went from high school into a secretarial college to become a court reporter, and the other followed her there after a brief stint at a college in Wisconsin.

Those educational paths were largely constructed by my mother, who also engineered a scholarship for me to a private school starting in the 7th grade. My father supported all of this in principle, but was detached from it. So when my mother died in the middle of my 10th grade year… well, let’s just say that my dad was dealing with a lot more than unfamiliarity with colleges and universities. When the time came, I was on my own with applications and financial aid forms. He beseeched me to attend the nearby community college so that I could live at home. When tuition reciprocity enabled me to go to the University of Wisconsin, he was sure that I was all but lost to him. First-gen students sometimes talk about the guilt of “abandoning” their parent. I know about that: I loved my dad.

So, true: I was socialized for college by my mother and by my high school experience, a huge boon when classes began. But she was gone, and socialization doesn’t pay the tuition bill or offer encouragement about a daunting assignment. Most of what I remember about college is panic: juggling jobs to pay my bills, terrified that I might flunk out, often in a state of free-fall, knowing that I was on my own. My father had no conception of what it cost to go to school or of the day-to-day academic challenges that are managed by a college student.

But things were also different then. When I started college in 1976, I attended alongside many first-generation students, as the ranks of higher education broadened in terms of gender, race, and class. And while I shared many of the financial, academic and emotional challenges of first-generation peers, my mother’s influence (the weekly trips to the library, car trips to historical sites, the consistency of encouragement) provided intellectual benefits that I could already recognize, my anxieties notwithstanding.

But my experience unquestionably gives me some affinity with the first-generation students with whom I work now. One of my strongest college memories is from winter break of my sophomore year: I was alone on a gray, snowy day, sitting on the floor with all of my financial aid papers, my tuition bill, my bank statements, and my paycheck stubs fanned out around me. No matter how I rearranged the papers, the numbers on them wouldn’t add up to the amount due for tuition. It was one of those crucible moments, when a person’s values crystallize into resolve. I decided in that moment that if I could figure out a way to pay that tuition bill, the opportunity would not be wasted: I’d work hard, and later I’d get a job, and I’d make it all worthwhile in the end.

I was extremely fortunate that my roommate’s parents did what my father couldn’t: they gave me the money I needed (and were kind enough to call it a loan). And in the end—well, clearly I’ve managed to essentially stay in college forever. But after 25 years of working in higher education, it’s easy to forget how grueling it can be. And my “maybe-I-am, maybe-I’m-not” status allows me to feel deep admiration for first-generation students who have even more at stake than I did and are so determined to persevere.

作为类似第一代大学生。。
劳瑞尔•肯尼迪 学生发展中心副主席

近来第一代大学生(家庭里第一代上大学的学生)面临的挑战吸引了多方注意力。对此话题的讨论得出的结论是提倡学院和大学能够确保聘用第一代大学生成为他们的教员或职员。

用当下的定义,严格来讲我是标准的第一代大学生。一些机构定义一个学生为“第一代”如果其父母从来都没有上过大学。一些机构关注一方家长是否从大学毕业。还有一些机构分不同情况来考虑这个问题——父母一方或父母双方,上过大学或者从大学毕业,等等。

父母的高等教育经历被视为重要,因为它与学生的学术表现以及成功互相关联。这种观念源自很多原因:受过高等教育的父母有更高的收入,所以有能力支付顶尖的学校。这些学生选择了适合自己兴趣和需要的大学因为父母可以协助他们选择适合的学校。他们更加容易取得学术成功因为他们在成长过程中一直接受教育,并且因为父母可以给予学术支持——不仅仅是写论文那么简单,还有关键性的决定,比如选择专业。

我的故事有一些复杂。我的母亲是大学毕业生,并且她与我分享了很多她的大学生活。但是,我们没有抱我会上大学的期望。我的哥哥,家里唯一的儿子,上了大学并从明尼苏达州一所离家75英里的州立学院毕业。我的两个姐姐,没有上大学。一个高中毕业后去了一所培训秘书的职业学校,并成为了一名法庭记者。另一个姐姐在威斯康辛州一所大学短暂的学习之后也从事了同样的工作。

她们的教育经历很大程度收到母亲的影响,我也在7年级的时候去到一所私立学校上高中。我的父亲理论上支持我母亲的决定,但并没有参与到决定中来。所以,当我的母亲在我上10年级的时候去世后,我的父亲需要处理很多他不熟悉的关于大学的事情。我只能靠我自己申请大学以及奖学金。父亲恳求我上附近的社区学院,这样我就可以住在家里。但当我得到了威斯康辛大学提供的学费补助,父亲知道留不住我了。第一代大学生有时会谈论到“抛弃”父母的负罪感,我很理解这种感受:我爱我的父亲。

我的母亲和我的高中学习经历塑造了我对大学的印象,对我大学生活的开始很有帮助。但是她去世了,对大学的憧憬不能交学费或者完成令人气馁的作业。我的大学生活围绕着“恐慌”这个词:尽力应付工作来挣取学费,害怕被开除,通常我处于自由下落的状态,因为我只有一个人面对一切。我的父亲对上大学所需要学费和大学生面临的学术挑战没有任何概念。

但是那时的情况有些不同。1976年我上大学的时候,周围的同学很多都是第一代大学生,鉴于高等教育学府扩大了招生范围,无论是从性别,种族还是阶级角度。我们都面临着经济上,学术上以及情感上的挑战。尽管我有很多焦虑,但是母亲给我的建议(每周去图书馆,参观历史景点,持续的鼓励)对我有诸多帮助。

毫无疑问,我的经历使我现在乐于与第一代大学生交流,也很享受这份与他们互动的工作。我对我的大学最深刻的回忆之一是,大二的寒假,一个灰暗的下雪天,我独自坐在地板上,所有的奖学金表格,学费账单,银行账单,以及支票存根围绕着我。无论我怎么计算,上面的数字都不足够支付学费。那是一个磨练意志的时刻,当一个人的人生观变得明确。那时我对自己说,如果我能够想到办法支付学费,那将是不容浪费和错过的机会,我一定会努力,然后我会找到工作,让一切都值得。

我非常幸运的得到了我室友父母对我经济上的帮助,是我的父亲不能给我的,他们给了我需要的资金(而且友善的称之为一笔贷款)。最终,我成功的从大学毕业了。在25年的高等教育的工作之后,我常常会忘记大学生活是多么折磨人。我的“也许我是,也许我不是”的状态使得我对第一代大学生感到深深的敬佩和赞赏,他们比我冒了更大的险,并且凭借相当的决心坚持到底。

Laurel Kennedy