The anger of a first-generation student

Growing up, my parents always told me that I could be and do whatever I wanted. I always believed them, but what I was never told was how angry I’d feel every day of my life.

No one told me about the anger I’d feel when 90% of my class raises their hand when the professor asks who has visited country x, y, and z when I’ve never left the country. Or how frustrating it feels to have to check my bank account before every purchase while my classmates receive money week after week from parents’ seemingly bottomless bank accounts. The anger that springs up when I’m searching for a summer internship because they’re all unpaid and I don’t have enough experience for the paid ones because I spend my summers working. The anger from spending my holiday breaks cleaning houses while my classmates take trips around the world.

I have to attend the 5am punishment meetings at my school when my hall-mates leave dirty dishes all over the floor because I can’t afford the $25 fine for skipping it. I take their dishes down to the dining hall to avoid the need for the meeting in the first place and it reminds me of our differences. These girls never ask who took their dishes down, but if they looked hard enough they could see the chip on my shoulder from doing so.

Home is never a break, I feel even angrier because my achievements have only made home harder. Since attending Wellesley I’ve been emotionally and physically harmed when I return home. No one wants to hear about someone who made it out, who has done better. I’ve had things stolen, comments made, and punches thrown. Sometimes I wish I wouldn’t have ever wanted to do more with my life because the stress and pressure becomes too much.

I need to get this out, in the hopes that by putting it down in writing and out into the world, I might finally be able to let go of the anger that I still feel. In Limbo, Alfred Lubrano mentions anger as one of the most defining emotions of a blue-collar kid trying to bleach her collar white. My anger is something that’s holding me back from all the opportunities I’ve made for myself.

My mom tells me that I should be grateful because I have so much more than so many people. I know she’s right but I can’t help but feel pissed at every kid who’s had their future set before they were even born. My anger is the unspoken side effect of social mobility, what no one ever talks about, but I need to talk about it.

36 Responses

  1. Julie Withers

    The anger is real and warranted, Emily. I’m a working class prof and what you describe resonated deep in my soul. I know you’re pissed and I know you have a chip and I know how home is not a break ’cause you crawled out of the crab pot and they’re hating on you for it. I feel you.

  2. Lisa

    Thank you for sharing your anger Emily. I became angry when my “guidance counselor” expressed frustration at me because it was difficult to add up my class credits. Because of my family poverty I moved frequently and went to three different high schools. It wasn’t my fault that we couldn’t afford rent but I was made to feel wrong, bad and a burden because of my poverty. I never got a regents diploma because of my poverty because I didn’t stay in one school long enough to take the required classes. Punish children for being poor. Emotionally smack them down and degrade them. Unfortunately, that is the mindset of some unconscious people. I hope some unconscious people will become conscious and aware from reading our shared stories. I believe that privileged people experience trauma too. Trauma from having relationships with nanny’s because their parents couldn’t be bothered with them. Unless we are all free none of us are free. Thank you again Emily!

  3. Meghan

    Thank you for so honestly expressing your anger. Thank you for having the courage to both take responsibility for what you truly feel, AND shine some awareness on it. It’s so easy to just be angry, to walk through life (or more like trudge) with an attitude, push away that fire, that simmering tension (often times reaching a boiling point) and never ask why? Why does progress feel so damn hard? Why does achievement seem so lacking? Why can’t I just rest and enjoy what I have struggled to accomplish?

    I wish I had answers. Here’s what I have been rolling around in my head for the past few years. #1. It seems like our culture, American culture, programs us from birth to assume that being successful equals happiness. #2 That those who have money are indeed happy. and #3 being angry means we are out of control (especially as women) and should push that out of sight as much as possible. And here’s my general response–F that.

    Anger is energy. Energy is powerful. I have more power than I realize. Money seems much more about some sort of conceptual framework of superiority than the tender and exchange of its original creation. And with that I am more and more believing that my anger is a VERY GOOD sign that s*%# is off. Not my feelings or emotions, but the framework by which I measure myself, by which the world that I live in measures me.

    And if I can harness this powerful energy to #1 convince myself that no matter how much money I have, real peace and joy come from some deep place within, #2 figure out a way to actually cultivate inner harmony despite my anger-causing situations, and #3 ignore the rampant system of BS that spouts otherwise, eventually, that inner tension will release. I’m not quite there yet, as you can see.

    But thanks. It’s nice to know there is a sister out here doing her best along the path with me. Please keep talking about it. And tell us when you have those moments that the anger subsides too. It’s a sliver of hope that there is another side to the pissed off coin, not a “better side” but another side that is both restful and free from the tension. I’m convinced it not only exist, but that we must be able to experience it in a deeply real way. Otherwise, how would we even know we were angry?

    Take care,


  4. Alamocate

    I know exactly how you feel. People are unappreciative and cruel, but this is just one step to a better life. You will rise above everybody else. You know, I struggled a long time and what really struck me was that one professor (a professor I thought never noticed me or cared), took me aside and told me how she knew I was going to become something greater than anyone else in that school. She took notice of how hard I worked, how attentive I was, and how intuitive and intelligent I was when answering questions. Your professors know there is greatness in you, your family knows and may resent you for it, and so do those girls who allow you to take their punishment. Like you said, it puts the few of us who want to break through to a better life in limbo, but someday you’ll be one of the few people that can say that you worked for everything you have, that you’re proud of what you have, and no amount of money could ever replace the growth you’ve experienced. Good luck!

  5. LookingForward

    Trust me, it actually doesn’t get better. Being a first generation college student I didn’t have great support from my parents to understand how to choose a major that I could not only be sucessful with but also make a decent living. I now have a master’s degree and still make less than $35,000 a year because I chose a career field assuming that if it required a master’s I would be able to find a good paying job. Add the ridiculuous student loan repayments and the credit card debt I racked up just to be able to pay my rent and I’m lucky if I can pay my monthly bills. They sell higher education like it’s the means to social mobility, which to be completely honest doesn’t seem to actually exist. I would have been better off going to trade school. I hope you have chosen a major and are gaining valuable work experiences that will translate to a good paying job when you are done. There are majors out there that really can change your life so do your research!!!!

    1. misti

      Yes, this is how Ikve always feltM I feel as though it’s my duty to warn people to major in something where they’ll make decent money, but the comments I always get are “oh, do what you love, the money will come.” No! How many waiters who are wannabe actors are doing what they love and the money never came! You and I both did this and the money never came! My theory is also you are going to pay the same for a useful degree or one that gets you a decent paying job, why not choose the latter? The other response I always get is”It isn’t always about the money.” It is when you can’t pay bills or survive. It’s like sex, if it’s not a problem, it’s 10 percent, if it is, it’s 90 percent. I just think from an early age we need to gear kids toward thinking that it’s okay to choose a career that is valuable in our economy, that it’s okay to learn how much something pay, and even better, what kind of car, house, etc that translates to, as the have no concept of money. I read your comments and was blown away, I felt this exact way in college, and still do sometimes. I’m told that I’m “living in the past” when in reality I don’t think of these things every day, only when I see examples of something that reminds me. People who weren’t in the situation don’t get it–we can only sum up our experience, but since they were not there every day crying and struggling with us in daily things (like those you mentioned) they cannot possibly understand. That felt good. Thank you for letting me vent. I don’t care if people make fun of me for trying to educate young people about these things, if I reach ONE young person it’s worth it. 🙂

  6. Michelle

    I never went to college parties because I had to work to help pay for my education. I split the tuition with my parents. I paid half from waiting tables and from summer jobs, and saved any other money that came my way.
    Going to a different country did not happen for me until my honeymoon. I rarely left the state.
    I lived with my parents until my sophomore year in college because I didn’t have enough money to cover the cost of living in a dorm. I finally moved out and got an apartment and worked, worked, worked to help pay for rent AND college.
    I paid for graduate school by working two jobs. No help from loans.
    I feel your anger.
    I also think your experiences have made you a stronger and wiser person. Be angry—but be proud that you are strong and independent as well.

  7. Mary

    Like you, I couldn’t take internships, I had to work summers to pay for school. I was blessed to have a union pay job at a power plant (shoveling coal & cleaning floors/toilets) for my tuition money. I graduated a semester early because I didn’t have the money to pay for my last semester, and I was fortunate enough to have maxed out credits in case that needed to happen.

    I now teach college, and I mentor the working class kids that come through my theatre program. I teach them the basics (carpentry, electrical work, etc) and also the *other* basics — that hard work and intelligence are rewarded, that being nice to people WILL get you jobs, that your connections with other people matter — so wherever you go, make friends with the administrative assistants, the janitors & maintenance staff, the security people. Like us, they’re working class people who appreciate that someone sees their work and worth, and they will help you all they can.

    Together, we can change the world. And we are.

  8. Mike Olszanski

    Over forty years ago I experienced this kind of thing and ended up quitting school and working in the steel mill for 26 years before returning to College.
    My kids both went to college, and can attest to the same kinds of experiences and frustrations.
    Class warfare? it was declared a long time ago–by the ruling class.

  9. Stephen Langley

    My oldest daughter attended one of the finest women’s colleges in the US and while cognizant the obvious wealth of the school (and a good share of its students) I was not as quick to pick up on the blatant classism of the school’s operation until later.
    Sitting in on the admission interview I was able to directly the following: “as we are not a family of affluent means, what can my daughter expect from classmate who are?” In hindsight, the answer is staggering. We were informed that more than 60% of the student body was on some form of financial aid and the college made no distinction (we’ll come back to this in a moment,) between financial aid students and those whose parents paid the full bill (about $30,000 when my daughter went there.) If the answer had stopped right there, I never would have had the head-snapping reaction (sadly later) to the following proud assertion: “In fact, we even have a support group for financial aid students.” If you’ve got no problem, why do you need a support group? I should have seen it then!
    Two years later, my daughter applied to spend up to a year at another institution (part of a twelve college consortium that allows students to pick up courses or experiences not available at their home institution.) The college raved about this program as it brought back to the campus all sorts of good ideas and enriched the college family.
    Several essays and support documents later, my daughter gets an email from the head of the program that sadly, she would not be able to participate. My daughter wrote back expressing curiosity as to how she was not qualified.
    She was informed that the way the program worked was that with all the schools being about the same tuition, tuition monies would “pass through” the home institution and be sent on to the other institution. For financial aid students however, the home institution had to dig into its own pocket to make up the difference. In order to be “fair” to the financial aid students applying for this program, all their names were “put in a hat.” The names were drawn out until the money was gone. My daughter didn’t participate because she was in the wrong part of the hat.
    At the same time she was learning this, the college had sent us a glossy copy of their alumni magazine touting their meeting a fundraising goal (several many million dollars) for their endowment. How ironic.

  10. Helen

    Hey, wait a minute, Emily! Why are you feeling angry? You should feel proud – proud that you’re not a snob, that you know the value of hard work, that you were raised with values, that you have a better understanding of how most of the world lives than your Wellesley peers, and because you have that understanding you will more effectively and humanely serve others if you choose to do so, and through that service, you will lead a more meaningful life.

  11. Sadie

    This reminds me of the book The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, though it was written in 1972 and pretty male focused. Maybe you would like it.

  12. Basu

    Dear Emily,

    I write as an English Professor. Your words are poignant, true, and wonderfully evocative. If your prose is any indication, all your hardships have been worth it. You have a gift my friend! You are a fabulous writer and a thinking individual.


    THANK YOU so much for writing this! I’m going for my masters now and I am all of a sudden having angry flashbacks to my undergrad, wanting (or feeling like I needed) to be involved in extracurriculars but not being able to afford the dues and eventually getting kicked out because I couldn’t attend enough meetings due to work. Listening to that stupid question when I went home: “How come you can’t figure it out, COLLEGE GIRL?” I have tried really hard to make sure I don’t come off as cocky or arrogant, but it doesn’t work. I’m pretty sure my family thinks I just don’t want to work, so I go to school instead.

    But I have to say the worst is when they tell me I need to “network” more and ask me who in my network would be of assistance. Parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, no sir, I’m sorry I’m the first. And their friends and mine, same story. And developing friendships during school? Again, great idea, but I have to work and study and sleep; maybe if I find an extra hour I can watch some lame tv show or read a junk magazine so I can relate to the kid sitting next to me in class.

    I’m so disappointed that in a country that was built on hard work, initiative and persistence, someone who possesses those qualities and hasn’t poured tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into experiences cannot succeed. Thanks again for writing this, and I hope everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status reads this.

    1. misti

      I love your comment about networking, I’ve always felt this way too.

      Gee, should I hit up my best friend who makes 8 dollars and hour at an administrative job, or the other one who is a cashier? My dad who works at a job where he lifts poles onto a truck, maybe he can help me find a job. My uncle who works at a printing factory? Who exactly could I network with to find a job, every single person I know is in a blue collar or low-paying job. They should at least address that fact when they say these statements. 🙂

      s too. G

  14. Emily Loftis
    Emily Loftis

    First, I just want to thank everyone for all of the positive responses. I wrote this piece a few weeks ago when I was having a particularly bad day. Out of fear of sounding silly, I decided to trash this piece and wrote another. Betsy encouraged me to post and I’m so glad that I trusted her opinion. The reaction is astounding for something I considered to be just venting. I’m glad that something I’ve been feeling, and struggling with, for so long is something that so many others relate to. I actually just started a First Generation College Student support group at Wellesley and this post has drawn in more members. I think the nature of this topic is so personal that it dissuades many from wanting to admit such feelings. Having done so in such a public way, I’m pleased to say that I’ve felt significantly less angry. Again, I’m so grateful to everyone for not only making me not feel alone in my anger, but justifying the feelings I’ve been trying to hide for nearly three years.

    Also, Johnnay – I’m not quite sure why you assume that I don’t work. I currently also hold two jobs, as well as attend a top private institution, intern for Class Action, and am currently establishing a First Generation College Student support group at Wellesley. Maybe if you dig a bit deeper, you might realize that you’re misplacing your anger towards me for admitting something you’re also feeling.

    1. Clark Amadon

      Hi Emily,

      Wonderful, eveocative words. Thanks! I work with first generation college bound students daily. The expereinces you share resonate with students experinces who I have assisted. Rarely have I read a first gens words, though and been so moved, startled, angrey and sad. Energised, too, sense you remind me, to in some small way, to help with the transition to college and to begin to understand class issues. My Dad was a 1st gen and his tales of college sound very much like yours. I also listen regularly to students talk about the cars they see in the parking lots of the colleges we visit. They wonder if these are the cars of the professors and staff and are usually amazed and intimidated when we tell them these are the parking lots for the students. Their world view is shifted significantly.

      One thing I imaged you doing soon is taking a walk into President Bottomly’s Office, making an appointment or just walking through the open door, and tellling your story. Wellesley should feel prouder of having you as a student and any other kid on campus!

      She needs to hear your words and I hope she also hears your request for the institution to change! These are her word’s from the college’s web site: “At Wellesley, we cultivate young women’s inherent leadership skills through our approach to the liberal arts, and prepare them for the important role they will have in shaping our future.” Your reflections are a concrete example of what the college is supposed to build. However, in your case I think you had these qualities when you arrived.

    2. Steph

      Hi Emily,

      As a first generation student and now college professor, I definitely know where you’re coming from, and I think it’s great that you’ve chosen to speak about your anger–it’s so hard, isn’t it, to feel safe expressing anger towards your fellow students, especially when you already feel like your relationships with those people and with your university are kind of precarious. You must be really brave.

      Some of the commenters here have said that it doesn’t get better. I disagree, and not just because it’s gotten better for me personally. I’ve found that the more I got up the courage to talk about class and coming from a working class background, the more I realized that there were other people at my posh college (and then grad school) who were in the same position I was in, but that were just doing a better job than I was at “passing” for middle/upper class, and who were suffering from the same kind of rage that I was. I think that by refusing to “pass” and to pretend that class isn’t an issue, you’re being a positive example for other people who still feel like they have something to be ashamed of. I am certain that even if you don’t know it, just by saying these things you’ve helped other students at your college feel less alone, and maybe less angry. By realizing that other people are in my shoes, I’ve also realized that it isn’t only the rich brats who succeed (although make no mistake, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult for those of us who don’t have our parent’s money to fall back on).

      I’ve also realized that part of what keeps us feeling powerless is that we’re made to feel like we can’t talk about these things in public, as though it’s somehow rude for us to make others feel awkward about their privilege, as though our concerns were less worthy of time and attention because they’re only the experiences of poor people. Keeping silent will never change that; speaking up and trying to organize ways of getting these issues recognized might, and it’s fantastic that you’re trying to not just help yourself, but help your fellow students too. You’re making your anger productive, and I admire that.

      All of which is a long way of saying: you rock.

  15. Pingback : First-Generation Wellesley Student Addresses Classism | The Slog

  16. Lena Rothman
    Lena Rothman

    Hi Emily.I’m really glad you shared your experiences and anger.I was a first generation college student and graduate.I didn’t go to college until I was in my 30’s.It took me six years to get my Bachelors in Sociology and another 3years to graduate from Acupuncture school. It took six years because I was working, co-parenting, and emotionally it was what I could handle. I went to a State University.Being older gave me a much different experience of my college years.Mostly I think I felt gratitude because the other students that were young and right out of high school didn’t seem to appreciate being there. They looked and acted bored to tears, maybe because they did what was expected of them. I was actually ecstatic because it was MY choice and I was proving myself. That I wasn’t stupid, that I wasn’t dumb that I could not only achieve my goals but be an A student all the way through.

    I’m from a poverty class family and have come to find out that I am also ADD and that colors life pretty differently.I’ve always joked (but it wasn’t a joke) the reason I didn’t go to college until later in life was because I was afraid of reading the small print. I really was intimidated.All of my pre-college years I had just passing grades and all I wanted was OUT.I went to college because my ex-lover at the time was also from a poverty class background and one of thirteen children and said “if she could do it, then I could do it.” I thank her for that.

    I was slated to go into “business”.As a secretary or file clerk. Basically, in my family as a Jewish daughter my father said I could either get married or be a secretary to get his respect. I remember purposefully sabotaging my typing and stenography classes(sorry now cause steno would have been a helpful skill throughout life). Expectations for wimin and if you were poor were minimal to non-existent.I had a middle class friend once say to me “At least you didn’t have any expectations on you.” I don’t think she had any idea of how painful and angering that statement was.

    Anyway, Emily, you’re doing a great job! Don’t sweat it, f* em and keep doin whatcha doin womyn! (said in jest butcha know what I mean.

    From reading your essay I’m inspired to write another essay wanting to talk about the differences between the working class and poverty class.You gave me some openings about these differences and airing these I think will move us forward.Thanks for including us and reaching out and bringing up such painful stuff.

  17. Emily,
    This took a lot of courage to write this. Barbara Ganim has some wonderful books on using art with your anger and getting it out of your body so it doesn’t cause you physical harm. Also a way to energize and let go of some of the frustrations you are working through. It takes a lot of courage to change old family rules and you are doing it. Keep truckin’ and you will be that much wiser for it. Blessings, Sharon

  18. David

    As a first gen student myself I can definitely understand where you’re coming from, yet I think you’re making a bigger deal out of it than normal on a personal level. I, too, am attending a top private school, but when I feel something is playing out unfairly among my peers I speak my mind instead of sitting quietly and being upset that no one magically notices my frustration. I am glad you pioneered the first gen students group on your campus because that is the type of thing that solves the problem, not hating on people who don’t understand because you don’t speak up about the issue. In short, if you’re angry about how something is playing out in your life either address the issue or don’t whine about it.

    Second, I am from a small town (not sure if it’s as small as yours) and I wanted to make a point in regards to that. Perhaps we are different in this regard, but people always treated me differently/worse because I knew from the moment I was aware of college and other things that I wanted to get the hell out of my town. No that I have I couldn’t be happier that I will never have to live in that world again. It is a personal choice once again. You choose to go back and expose yourself to those people. If you don’t like it, why not just visit your parents and ignore everone else? Then be glad that you are making something of yourself and living your dreams. Honestly, it took me a long time to realize this, but some people are just not made to go to college or do anything besides work a blue collar job, and that is fine. Since you aren’t living that life maybe you should move on to your own life and stop worrying about the haters.

  19. Miles

    There is a lot of substance to what you are saying. I go to a school where most or all of my friends have never had a job and have never had to think twice about paying for anything they needed. Seeing a lifestyle we don’t, and might not get everywhere we look is frustrating.

    On the other hand actually getting mad about this is akin to being mad at buying a lotto ticket and not winning. Sure, someone else feels like a million bucks (sorry, I had to), but you still live in a country that sells lotto tickets. If we live with comparison as the metric that defines are happiness we will never be satisfied.

    Consider that a lot of kids born in to very rich families live their whole lives jealous and bitter because they were not smart enough to be great. Many of them will never live up to their parent’s achievements and are emotionally bitter or deeply guilty about this for an entire lifetime. They see friends who are a little bit quicker to study, have slightly deeper pockets, and are in general a little bit luckier, and are mad that they couldn’t just have had more.

    Being in a position to not have to worry about where to live, what to eat, and who to spend the simple, wonderful moments in life with should be good enough. If we focus too much on comparing, we get distracted from that.

  20. Becky

    I was a first-generation, working-class Midwestern kid who graduated a semester early from a rich-kid school on the East Coast. And I definitely understand what you’re saying – I once had to explain to a friend that the job I went to every few days was how I was able to buy plane tickets. Why else would she think I worked?

    That being said, you’ve probably noticed that you’re going to be more easily able to survive the real world than most of your privileged peers. You’ve already had to figure out how to budget, how to manage your time, and generally how to live as an adult. Once you graduate, you’ll have an easier time adjusting than your classmates who have not had to figure out any of this stuff. Plus, you’re contributing to your classmates’ education by exposing them to someone who has had to work for everything she has.

    I’m now proud of having essentially put myself through an expensive school with a good reputation and people admire me for it. Hold your head high!

  21. Pablo

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am also a first-generation college student, and I also attended an elite liberal arts college in Massachusetts. We have much in common, except for the anger at my fellow college classmates, which is something I never really felt. I took it as a given that I was going to get the short end of the stick–that some of my fellow classmates were going off to the Caribbean while I worked, that some of them would own nice cars and clothes while I would go without, etc. Realizing that from the beginning allowed me to be nonplussed at all by the disparities. It was a given and I shrugged it off as something I could not help, like the sky being blue or the winter being cold. I suppose this is the case with me because of three factors that differentiate me from you.

    First, I had had the fortune to attend excellent public middle and high schools (magnet schools, actually). There I was sensitized to all the nice things that my friends and classmates had but that I lacked. However, instead of being consumed by envy and self-pity, I made it a goal to think that one day I could provide my children with those goods. That I would try my best academically to eventually have those goods when I was an adult. For some odd reason that worked for me; it allowed me to take the sting out of being poor and just live my life. It’s much easier to reframe your mind about your poverty relative to everyone else’s wealth at 10 years of age than at 18 years of age, so I can understand that for you (if you came from a really bad public school system in an impoverished community) the shock of income inequality in college would be more severe and less pleasant since you did not have years to get used to it.

    Second, I learned from a very early age to make friends with non-materialistic people. I hung out with the nerds and the hippies and the people who came from well-off families but who couldn’t care less about the latest car or gadget or shirt. They dressed normally, never talked about money, and drove beaten-up old cars. I did this in middle school and high school and forged some great friendships with people who were not of my class (very few people were as poor as me I would later find out). So when I arrived at my elite, super-rich college I knew almost immediately the people who would accept me for who I was and not for the things I could buy. A very pleasant four years ensued. And I never really befriended the people who were obviously too caught up in wealth signifiers to be good friends in the end (though some of the friends I did make who I thought were normal and middle class ended up being loaded but very humble about their wealth).

    Third, and lastly, my parents came from grinding Third World poverty. They came from mud-hut villages where there was no electricity or running water. My mom did not finish first grade and my dad did not finish eighth grade. Seeing the poverty they came from early on, and then seeing all the incredible opportunities I had at my middle and high schools and college, really framed my class situation very differently. I was already rich by the standards of what my parents had when they were young. So for me to be jealous and embittered by what I didn’t have just felt odd and selfish, since my parents had done far more with far less. Hearing these stories day in and day out from my parents made me much more grateful for what I did have, which is really a good way to feel good about yourself.

    In any case, I hope that you change your frame of mind about your relative poverty. Being consumed by envy and anger at your classmates is a very sad way to spend your college years. It can’t be helped. It’s reality. You’re poor, they’re rich. But you send out bitterness vibes if you are constantly angry about this reality, and because of it you may close off some great friendships you may have had otherwise with some great people. Just like not all poor people are good and warm-hearted, not all rich people are mean and nasty. Give it a chance–let go of your envy. If you do, I assure you your life at Wellesley will substantially improve.

  22. Nicole Renee Brown
    Nicole Brown

    Hi Pablo,
    Thank you for sharing your experience as a first-gen college student as well as a Immigrant. I think that identity allows a different perspective of viewing poverty for “native-born” people within the U.S. who may have experienced generations of poverty. As a both a first-gen elite college grad (who also went to private H.S. school as you did) and child of immigrants, I understand what it means for our parents to have way less opportunities back home than here in the U.S. This gave them a particular view point of the states–this was the land of opportunity. But what if your family was here for generations and despite being told and sold on the idea of meritocracy, the lived experience resulted in poverty after you tried your hardest to believe the american dream?

    The thing about your commentary that I want to point out for clarity is that Emily’s emotions were not expressing envy, jealousy and embitterness of her rich classmates. I think this is a common misconception by those who do not share the same feelings and especially of the upper-income earners (or those who one day hope to be upper-income) who feel judged or attacked when someone from the other side of the table points to their privilege. It’s not envy that a person like Emily or myself or other commentors feel–it is the knowledge that we are, as you said, at the short end of the stick and that tied to that, is the shocking, painful awareness that it highlight the injustice in our society of which we are recipients of and that claims meritocracy have been false; that our struggles that leave us crying at night, or on high-blood pressure meds is not as natural as the “sky being blue” but rather man-made historically been engineered to another person’s benefit. Those feelings should not be misconstrued with envy because despite the struggles that I have in my life, I would not trade it for the other burden our allies with wealth privlige have because that too, is a struggle as well.

    I am glad that you do not feel the same emotions Emily or others feel even though you share a similar background–we are all individuals and cannot possible feel the same way! Your feelings and experiences are very valid. But the concept of Envy of the rich can throw the conversation off track as well as invalidate the feelings of others, especially from the target group that points out the inequality. Class identity development can be cyclical (as a woman of color I can identify with the Psychological model of Racial Identity Development which has eluminated my concept of class and other -isms) and for you, you are at a different place in the cycle than Emily who also is at a different place than another person.

    1. Joanna Springer

      Thank you, Nicole. I think you are right on. As a student at Hampshire College, I was lucky in a way: the students tried to hide their wealth, and I never had to worry about my clothes or not taking fancy trips.

      What was challenging was the missed opportunities. This ranged from things as small as not being able to pick up extra work-study shifts because I didn’t get the emails in time because I didn’t have a computer, to not being in a position to do impressive internships or study abroad during vacations.

      What was hard to deal with was not really envy at others’ opportunities, but the sense that I *should* be able to do the same impressive activities as the others. After all, the internships were “paid” or the study abroad was on “scholarship”. My classmates just couldn’t grasp all the attendant expenses those experiences involve, not to mention the money I could save toward tuition when working and living at home during vacations. I struggled with feeling like I just didn’t have my act together, like I had a “poverty mindset”, like I was lazy or couldn’t manage my time well enough to get enough scholarship money or find enough plane ticket deals to make it feasible.

      I think part of what Emily is expressing is the pressure of being expected to compete on the same level, the incomprehension of why you don’t, and the many little pressures and challenges that add up to get in the way of the kind of success you see your classmates achieving. As time goes on, the overseas/internship/volunteer experience or lack of it has a snowball effect. It’s a challenge I still face, almost four years after graduating, trying to get a job interview in a cut throat market.

    2. Robert

      You still sound jealous and bitter. I grew up lower middle class, but attended a affluent high school due to intelligence and my parents efforts – they sent 3 kids to this school, and drove an older station wagon, rather than the Mercedes the other parents in the neighborhood drove because they didn’t have to pay for tuition at this school. Went on to drop out after 4 years at a fairly prestigious university… 🙂

      I’ve done ok in life so far, 45 now, but certainly no where near the mega riches some have in the industry I work in, but I don’t feel embarrassed or resentful.

      I also have a long term girlfriend, a grade school teacher, with a masters degree, that has never had two nickels to rub together, and she is the happiest person Ive ever met.

      Life is what you make of it. If you don’t get this, try being poor in a poor country, then come back and complain about how there is no opportunity here.

  23. Jasmine


    I know you posted this months ago, but your words really hit home with me tonight. I found this entry while looking up how to handle family members who resent the fact that I went to college and grad school.

    I graduated from grad school last week and I should be happy — but I am not. I’ve been working towards earning a master’s degree for years and I feel like the joy has been stolen from me. You see, I have experienced all that you have as a first generation college student. We share this bond. In addition, the only thing worse than the privileged students and professors at my prestigious university is how my own family treats me for getting ahead in life.

    My grandparents on my mom’s side had seven children and my paternal grandparents had nine. Between the two families I have over 40 cousins. Out of all these people, I am the only person to graduate high school, college, and grad school. They gossip about “how I think I am better than them,” and how “I’m trying to act and be something or someone I am not.” However, I am the first person they call when they need money. My relationship with them has become extremely toxic. I’ve distanced myself from them after being told that they are ashamed of me because I am disloyal, selfish, and a poser.

    I went to college with the intention to break a cycle of poverty and be an example to my younger siblings and cousins. However, I have now become the black sheep that no one can relate to. They laugh at the way I speak and make inappropriate jokes about me having diverse friends. Honestly, I come to despise the family I used to love so much. Every time I am around them I get kicked around and god forbid I stick up for myself. It suddenly turns into 15 people against one. Family members have stolen from me, gossiped about me to non-family members, and tried to get me fired from jobs. One cousin even slept with my boyfriend, then paraded around proudly stating that I’m not better than her because she can get any man I could. This all devastates me and I have turned to counseling to deal with the emotional turmoil.

    I know that the best thing to do is detach myself from them and never look back. However, its sad that people are so resentful of others accomplishments when the fact is that they decided on their own to be idle in life. It’s also sad that I have such a huge family and I am forced to live life alone. Because I needed to distance myself from their emotional battering and money seeking ways, I moved to another state. This is a choice I made in order to heal and recover. Its pretty isolating but now I have some peace of mind. Thank God that I have friends who really care about me who I can share my life with for now.

    I feel your pain and anger, and I hope that sharing mine shows you that you are not alone. I commend you for starting a support group at your school. I wish I had one during my academic years. 🙂

    1. Emily Loftis


      I’ve been lucky enough not to have the same response from my family that you have had. I have had the same reaction from friends that I had back home. I agree that moving and not keeping in contact helps so much. I wish I would have learned that earlier honestly. I spent most of my breaks from school returning home only to regret doing so. It’s important to remember that the reaction that they’re having is basically a way to pass any bad feelings onto you. It’s easier to act terribly towards someone who indirectly has made you feel bad about your own life. The awful truth is that by doing well, you make others realize that they may not be doing as well as they want. Even if people want to be where they are, there’s a sense that just because you personally wanted better that it implies you’re judging them for not doing so. Although it took awhile, I have basically cut anyone who treated me like that from home out of my life. It may be much harder because it’s your family, but removing them from your life may be the best option. Another option would be (after some time) to try to make them realize that you personally love education, and don’t think less of anyone who doesn’t. Acknowledge the luck that you’ve had in life, and play down the hard work you’ve done. It sounds like an awful solution, but I’ve personally had pretty great success.
      I wish you the best of luck! I’m sorry your family is having a hard time being happy for you, but just know that you’re doing the right thing and some day they may come around!

  24. Rob

    Emily, I see that you wrote this several months ago, but it truly resonates with me. I am not only a first generation college graduate, but a first generation law school graduate and lawyer as well. I understand and know that frustration and anger very, very well. It doesn’t go away after school either, if anything it changes and remains the same. After school you will watch kids that have lower grades, drug and alcohol problems, or are just plain incompetent get very high paying jobs because of who their parents are.

    It’s good that you have the idea to start a group for first generation students. It is something I would have liked to have available, especially during law school. Most of us working class kids kept our backgrounds quiet, lest we pop up on the radar of our classmates who would gloat about the plight of working people today, as though they deserve to lose their jobs, homes, and pensions. It would have been nice to have a group to talk to about having to work 3 jobs while attending classes full time, dealing the fallout from our choice to better ourselves, to commiserate with about family problems. But at the same time, I think the experience made me stronger. Although I lost a lot, my gains clearly outweigh my losses. Yes, I have been largely disowned by the majority of my extended family. Yes, I do feel isolated and without peers as I work in the area I am from. Yes, I have had a job offer revoked, and have been laid off twice in the year since graduation.

    However, at 26 I can say that I spent a summer in college doing development work in Central America, I spent a summer doing an exchange program studying law in China, I have years of experience in my field because of the need to work during school, I have had tremendous mentors who have molded me from a blue collar kid from a rural town in South Jersey to a skilled and determined young litigator poised to protect the rights of the less fortunate. But most important to me, I earned everything I have. It wasn’t handed to me, nor did I have anyone get me a job.

    I apologize if that seemed self absorbed, but I am trying to show that it does get better as you move forward. It is a long and arduous journey, but it can be done. It seems like you are already well on your way. Keep it up!

  25. Ashley

    Dear Emily,

    Thanks so much for sharing your story and your frustrations. As a first-generation college student myself, I can’t even begin to tell you how much I can relate to your feelings, your story, and that of so many others on this page. I think its absolutely wonderful that you started a support group on your campus, I really wished I could have started something similar during my undergraduate career. I think I was often too afraid to admit the impact being a first-generation college student was having on me in college. Now, as a recent graduate, I’m finding how hard it is for first-generation students even after graduation.

    You don’t have the luxury of the family or family friends who can give you that connection or foot in the door at the organization you’re interested in working at. You don’t have the luxury to take the time off to search for the perfect career and do informational interviews because bills need to be paid. And as much as, I’m sure, our parents would love to help they can’t because they’re struggling to make ends meet themselves in this tough economy.

    Even after graduating summa cum laude with a 3.83 GPA, receiving the Outstanding Student Award, and having excellent leadership and interpersonal skills I still have not solidified a job. Despite these obstacles, I am proud to call myself a first-generation student as I know I grown in so many ways because of it. Trust me, people will see that about you! I have no doubt that I will find that career that is perfect fit for me, that someone will see my skills and take me on board soon enough!

    Stay positive 🙂 Keep up the great work! And thank you again for sharing!


    PS: I started a LinkedIn group for anyone who is or was a First Generation College Student to share advice, offer support, and provide encouragement : . Would love to get a conversation started there!

  26. Caitlyn

    Right there with you, darlin, and it isn’t going to stop when you graduate from college either. You are strong, and resilient, and so motivated. Keep your chin up.

  27. Holly

    Thank you for this post, Emily. I found it while searching for a first-gen support group and you summed up the past 10 years of my life. I’m working on my second graduate degree and the topics you mentioned are stronger than ever, as I find myself straddling my aspirations with my family’s expectations. Your efforts are going to benefit many!

  28. Lainey

    Thank you so much for this post! I am a first generation college student and I am writing a research paper on the reasons why first generation students are statistically less successful than second generation students. I picked this topic because I thought it would be cathartic. I have the same anger issues that you describe. However, I find the more I research this issue the more it adds to my frustration and feeling that the light at the end of the tunnel is so far off that I will never reach the end. I know that the anger I feel is self defeating and as you mentioned keeps me from greater success. However, as you pointed out, it springs up when I think about how long it will take me to get my degree compared to those who were privileged enough to inherit an education! I thought that researching this topic would help me to feel less alone, but until I found this post it just contributed to me feeling like a monkey in a cage. I realize clinical studies, which are tying to pinpoint the cause of our higher drop out rates, must look at hard data such as hours worked, involvement in on campus activities etc… but honestly I feel like the emotional elephant in the room is the real reason most first gens give up. Some days it just feels so pointless and endless! I have yet to find a study that polled first gens AFTER dropping out to ASK them why they quit! So anyway….thanks for your post and making me feel like a human being with real feelings and problems not a freaking case study. Haha!