Finding My Place in Academia as a First-Gen

4th Annual 1st Gen Summit full house

Overflow attendance at Class Action’s 1st Gen College Student Summit

As the first in my family to attend college and to go on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I have definitely struggled to find my place in the world of academia, the class system of higher education, and to understand the worth of my experience. As a child of mixed Caucasian and Native American descent, I often battled the stigma of my poverty and my race. I grew up in a rural country town where my differences were often very clear.

Living in Section 8 housing and having to have free lunch and food stamps: The shame was very real and very painful. I can still remember getting Thanksgiving and Christmas boxes on our front porch and being so embarrassed, because none of my classmates had to receive those. I grew to understand that being poor was bad, that living the way I did was “unacceptable” and “undesired” in society, and I shouldn’t be like that.

Paving the Way for Low-Income 1st-Gens

Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA, my role with students of similar background has been multifaceted. I was tasked with attempting to create a college access and career readiness program for the high school students that are served by my sponsoring organization, the University Community Collaborative at Temple University, which focuses on youth empowerment in order to build stronger communities.

My program has emerged as the UCC’s Post-Secondary Planning (PSP) – College and Career Program. The PSP project is aimed at creating a starting point to assess student literacy and to encourage the students to have confidence and use their voice to “create” their story.

As part of my position, I see students in individual advising sessions where we talk and try to formulate a plan. The advising appointments have been critical to listening to the students’ needs and desires and encouraging them to articulate a plan of action to reach those goals.

In those sessions I have sought to specifically address which 1st-Gen, TRiO, multicultural or diversity programs may exist at the institutions they want to attend. The most challenging thing in these sessions is to encourage the students to self-advocate and self-identify before, during and after the application process, including once they are admitted.

The advising sessions have provided the students with lots of dense, but resource rich information and have in many cases connected them with individuals and offices at those institutions that work with students who are typically low-income, 1st-Gen, students of color, or have experienced some other potential obstacle prior to attending.

Understanding Access, Equity and Privilege

It seems since I began my work last July, everyone is jumping on the hot ticket of “college access,” and that scares me. I work for an organization housed at an institution that has historically been labeled “a university for the people, for the community.” And yet every day I see students just like myself – those who had limited literacy about, knowledge of and support in preparing for college – struggle to understand the dynamics of higher education; university life; and issues of class, race and socioeconomics.

I’ve realized it’s not about just going on to some kind of postsecondary education. It is also critical that literacy about social and cultural capital be developed and the support must be there once my students – and others with similar backgrounds – get on a campus.

The opportunity to build the knowledge and understanding of college access has been a great professional experience for me. I have been able to engage with and deconstruct concepts of education through a rural and urban lens in ways that are vital to understanding access, equity and privilege in regards to postsecondary education.

I have also encouraged my students to think critically about issues of classism and race by looking at their own lived experiences. Finally, I think I am now in a place where I know it’s “okay” that I am who I am. And by sharing my testimony I have perhaps encouraged my students to realize that how and where they live doesn’t necessarily reflect who they are or how they should be defined.

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