I was raised in rural Idaho by parents working hard to make ends meet and enable my sister and I to live out the lives they never had access to.
I was lucky to have the support of my family in pursuing a college education — with my mom pouring over books about scholarships and my dad diligently helping me enter my family’s financial information into the monster that is FAFSA.
But not far into my college career, I couldn’t help but notice that my experience in higher education was very different from that of my peers with a legacy of educational privilege in their families.
At the same time, I felt like my rural Idaho roots were disintegrating and that I was becoming a person I didn’t know how to seamlessly weave back into my home life.
I was climbing the ladder of educational privilege, but with each step up, I faced barriers because I was chartering new territory for my family, yet simultaneously felt like I was climbing away from them.
In many ways as a white person, I faced fewer barriers and challenges than my peers of color and/or even lower income backgrounds. But I hope that sharing my experience can be a source of support and solidarity for other first generation college students and graduates.
Here are my top four pieces of advice for first generation college students feeling caught between two different worlds — their roots, histories, and hometowns versus the world of academia.
1. Show Up as Your Full Self
In general, the institution of education is a powerful system for the reproduction of intergenerational privilege, and 74% of students attending today’s “most competitive” schools have families in the top income quartile, while only 3% have families in the bottom quartile.
In their own right, institutions of higher education are an industry that thrives off of classism and the ability of privileged families to pay unprecedented high tuitions.
This means that we first generation college students and graduates are rare birds.
Take a moment to appreciate how much determination and hard work you’ve committed to getting to where you are.
I wish I felt that way during my first years of college, particularly the ability to be proud – aloud – about my roots and history.
Instead, I adopted markers of upward mobility (hello, second-hand designer jeans) and kept quiet when my peers discussed their parents’ careers or the family vacation they were looking forward to.
Then, as I connected with other first generation college students and we bonded and laughed over our fathers’ endearing “side-projects,” I couldn’t help but revel in how freeing it felt to speak honestly and openly about where I come from and the family I love, even if they were pretty different from the average college student’s family.
It can take a lot of bravery to show up as your full self at college, but nothing feels better.
And chances are, you aren’t the only student dying to talk candidly about how at odds you feel with the elitism you face in higher education settings or speak up as your classmate blames the bad economy on low-income folks and Native Americans not paying taxes.
Yeah, that really happened in one of my classes.
You can show up as your full self in both little and big ways.
It can be as simple as sharing your story and the challenges you’re facing with your peers, friends, and professors.
It can be as bold as organizing a discussion group for first generation college students so you can collectively make recommendations to your school’s administration on how they can improve services and support systems for low-income and first generation students.
2. Build Community
I worked anywhere from three to five part-time jobs at a time during college. Tuition and books are expensive — and so is flying across the country to go home for the holidays or back to school after summer break.
The things first generation college students have to do to get to college in the first place know no bounds.
And the same thing goes for what we have to do to stay and finish college.
Oftentimes, first generation college students are not only supporting themselves, but also partially supporting their family back home while they’re in school.
In many ways, our college experience is different from our peers with families of educational and financial privilege.
I’ll never forget how I felt when I heard fellow students talk about having their parents review their papers or help them structure their senior thesis.
I was jealous, and it felt so unfair.
Academia is already stacked against first generation college students, and not having parents that I could lean on for academic assistance was one of many cherries on top.
But it also felt good to know that my academic success was all mine.
That’s why it was so important for me to build community with students with backgrounds similar to mine who faced the same challenges in navigating newfound educational privilege while also feeling woefully out of place at times.
We could help each other with schoolwork when our parents couldn’t and lean on each other for support as new challenges emerged with each semester.
Together, you will feel less alone and together, you can help make your college or university a safer place for first generation college students.
3. Be Okay with Planting a Seed and Watering It
I struggled to share my new academic knowledge and passions with my family.
I studied Political Science and Gender and Sexuality Studies, which both transformed my personal ethos and lens through which I examine the world.
I fell head over heels in love with feminism – both inside and outside of the classroom – and wanted to share this new passion with my parents.
The concept of second wave feminism was by no means foreign to my parents, but the depth of my exploration into feminist theory and intersectional feminism wasn’t something they had the luxury of doing in their jobs as a carpenter and nanny.
And that’s perfectly okay.
It was up to me to break down things like the male gaze, the prison industrial complex, and gender performance in a way that was meaningful and applicable to their lives.
This required ditching the academic jargon, doing the important work of breaking down the ivory tower shrouding feminism, and being patient with their adoption of intersectional feminist analysis.
We’re still working on it together.
I wasn’t always very skilled at the patience part, but I’ve learned that planting the seed and watering it over time is key.
This especially comes in handy if you have family members or relatives who are resistant to adopt feminism’s anti-oppression values.
By including your friends, family, and community back home in your exploration of feminism – or whatever you may be studying – the smaller the gap between your roots and your future will feel.
Remember, be patient. They’re doing the best they can and most of all, they’re probably extraordinarily proud of you.
4. With Great Privilege Comes Great Responsibility
Despite the challenges you face as a first generation college student and the many possible ways in which you may not have privilege, the fact is that now you do have educational privilege.
And with great privilege comes great responsibility – responsibility to be fully aware of our privilege, move past guilt we may feel about new privilege, and be intentional about pursuing social justice, both at your school and the world at large.
One of the most rewarding things I did during college was start and lead a feminist activist group on campus.
Do what you can, when you can – from calling out and confronting elitism in the classroom to more seriously pursuing the niche of social justice that calls to you most.
It all matters and it all counts.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Start or Join a First-Gen Student Support Group on Campus: As the First Generation Student blog outlines, support groups can be an effective and empowering way to find community with your peers experiencing similar challenges. Feeling less alone is powerful and important.
- Start or Join an Intersectional Feminist Student Organization: URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity) is an amazing organization dedicated to young activists like you. With their help, it’s easy to start an URGE chapter and apply an intersectional feminist lens to your campus and community organizing.
- Start or Join an Active Minds Chapter to Raise Mental Health Awareness on Campus: Mental health issues are prevalent among college students, and breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness is an important feminist issue. Strengthening the systems of support for mental health at your college for students experiencing mental illness is critical work and may be especially important for first generation college students, who can experience greater levels of depression and stress compared to continuing generation students.
And last but not least, take care of yourself.
College is stressful enough as it is and even more so when you feel like you’re chartering new territory each day. Hang in there and keep watering all those seeds.
Sara Alcid is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism, feminist political organizer, writer, and speaker based in Washington, DC. Her activism and writing focus on rape culture, reproductive justice, economic justice, and queer rights. With an academic background in gender and sexuality studies, she bridges feminist theory and intersectional social justice organizing with the hope of making feminism accessible and empowering for all. Follow Sara on Twitter @SaraAlcid. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.