When are you no longer a first generation college student?

Why was I feeling inadequate, angry, and torn between family and academia, just like first-generation college students feel? I was a graduate student with a college degree, damn it! Shouldn’t these feelings be gone by now?

When I was admitted to graduate school, I was ecstatic. In my journal I wrote that I was “excited to meet new people, excited to direct my own research, excited to re-engage with the learning process no matter how much sleep I lose in the process.” While reading this journal excerpt a year later, these feelings, which had been so salient when I wrote them, now seemed so very distant. My excitement had been tempered by the struggles I was encountering daily.

On the surface I appeared to be a thriving student: I was passionate about my research area, engaged in my community, and receiving excellent marks for my work. Inside, though, my feelings were different, obscuring my once-clear view that graduate school was the right choice for me. I was having feelings of inadequacy, anger toward those who misrepresented me, and discomfort in being forced to choose family over academia (or more often the reverse). These feeling were not unfamiliar; they had accompanied me throughout much my undergraduate career as a first-generation student. And once again, they even had me contemplating dropping out.

As an undergraduate I could tell you all the ways in which I was different than my peers. But if you asked me what a first-generation student was, I would have told you that that is a student whose parents had immigrated to America. I didn’t learn the term’s true meaning until well after college, when I became a college success advisor at a non-profit focused on low-income first-generation students. From daily interactions with students and reading foundation research reports, I came to understand the many impacts that being first-gen has on college students.

At that point I felt my feelings as an undergraduate were justified. However, I did not understand why these feelings were recurring for me as a graduate student. I tried to cast them off, telling myself that I was unjustified in having them. I had a degree now. How could I still be claiming the status of first-generation student? Things got pretty dire: I felt I didn’t belong there and thought it might be better if I left graduate school. Getting nowhere with my own internal debates, I knew I needed to expand the conversation beyond myself.

I reached out to fellow graduate students who identified as having been first-generation undergraduates, to plan a conversation about our experiences as graduate students. I was surprised by the response and the diversity of the group that gathered. There were M.A., Ph.D., and M.D. candidates in the room, hailing from departments across the university. Our discussion that evening was varied and wide reaching, touching on family responsibility, institutional values, cultural capital, academic structures, (human) social networks, and personal passions. We each shared personal struggles with our identity as graduate students who also were first-generation.

At the conversation’s close I realized that none of us would ever stop being a first-generation student. We each would face trials that would go unnoticed by our peers, struggle with assumptions made by our advisors about our preparation and financial situation, and worry about the widening gap growing between ourselves and our families. Despite these trials, which might continue to lie ahead, I felt affirmed in knowing that there were others like me who claimed their identity as a first-generation student even in graduate school. My peers had shown me that my feelings were justified and embracing them was essential to my healing process. When I acknowledged these feelings as part of my identity as a first-generation student, I was able to take action confronting them, letting them go, and most importantly, moving beyond them to fully embrace my experience as a graduate student.


A self-defined “community alchemist” Adj hails from Providence Rhode Island where she honed her skills as an artist and educator. Her practice has taken her across the country and globe as a teacher, documentarian, artist and special projects coordinator. Adj completed her Masters at Brown University in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage and currently lives in the Twin Cities with her partner and their cat Bodyslam. 

2 Responses

  1. Adj,
    thanks you for your insightful and articulate piece. How wonderful that you realized the importance of connecting with others in similar circumstances, that prompted the support and relief that arose when others shared the complexity of their situations. Your experience and your ability to reflect on and articulate it are a wonderful gift that I hope you will continue sharing with others in written form and direct contact. So much of the “burden” that people carry often has to do with the sense of isolation and uniqueness that people experience.
    We spoke a couple years ago, I can’t remember the exact nature of our conversation, but I recall meeting you at the Rhode Island rock gym.
    With deep appreciation for your thoughtfulness and perceptiveness,
    Dave Joseph
    Public Conversations Project

  2. Pingback : “Being First Gen can apply to Graduate Students?” More Reflections on this Summer | .nicole.brown

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