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.