Getting the best of you.

Being a first generation college student

I think I might write a bit more about this later this week because it's something that I've had very little opportunity to discuss throughout my academic and professional career. I grew up in low-income neighborhood in a rural area and both of my parents were high school graduates—three of my grandparents dropped out of high school, with one graduating high school. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and the first one on both sides of my family to get an advanced degree.

I think people underestimate the cultural differences that derive from class because I had massive culture shock going to college, meeting kids who were mostly from upper-class families with significant education, something that has followed me throughout my life. And while it seemed on the surface as if I had a lot in common with them, we had very few experiences that were similar growing up. And they had ongoing resources—not just financial but mentorship and guidance from their families—that I never had. (even though my class background is probably more typical of the average American, which is irritating because I've always been considered such an outlier)

I struggle with the imposter syndrome a lot which is exacerbated by feelings that my own missteps are usually evident that I don't belong in these institutions. I know in reality that I deserve to be there but it's never going to be a totally comfortable environment like so many of my peers. It's been so work just to catch up to others.


I'd be curious about other people's experiences, if you have them. Here is an interesting article about first generation graduate students here and another one about the invisible barriers for first generation college students in doctoral work. It plays into all sorts of issues around expertise and what and whose knowledge is privileged, including ways that academia perpetuates class issues. I like the discussion about social capital in the second article because there are really implicit messages about who belongs to the academy and who does not. And invariably there are cultural differences related to class that are designed to make people conform to a set of expectations—I know this, in that there is a lot about my life I've had to change, experiences I felt like I had to gain, ways that I changed—even in my speech and dress—to fit into this exclusionary culture. I'd be curious to hear from others on this as well.

Share This Story