A First-Generation College Student Experience: An Exercise in Pride and Shame

25 Jan

From my personal experience, I can say that the phenomenon of being a first-generation college student is one that is rooted in mixed feelings. As the first person in my family to become a college student, I felt an overwhelming pressure to succeed and to be a role model for my younger sister. My family expected me to do big things and to go to great places, but I certainly didn’t feel capable of being anything more than ordinary. I came from a low-income family in a small, rural town in the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania; I assumed my fate was sealed when I was born into poverty.

Going to college felt like a vital step in breaking the long, multi-generational cycle of social and economic struggle that my family experienced. I thought that if I didn’t succeed in obtaining a college degree, I would be destined to live in poverty for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be stuck working a job I hated in one of the local factories like so many of my friends had. I wanted to thrive, not just merely survive. Finishing college was my ticket to a brighter future. It was essential in order for me to build the kind of career that would be fulfilling for me.

Although I understood the completion of a college education to be one of my main life goals, it was extremely difficult for me to actually get to university. Knowledge about applying to and paying for college is not readily available to all people, especially socioeconomically disadvantaged folks. The language and the assistance that is available are not accessible to many people. I remember thinking, when I was applying for financial aid before my first semester of college, “What in the world is a FAFSA?!” As a child in poverty, I didn’t have access to other people who had been to college and had been through the application process. One of the most important lessons I learned through my experience that has helped me to grow as a social justice advocate is that you can’t access assistance when you don’t know the right people to talk to or the right places to go to for help.

The other obstacle I encountered when trying to go to college was the struggle to physically leave my home. It was difficult for me to leave behind my friends and family, and I felt like I was betraying my mother by leaving her. I knew that I had to leave in order to better my life, but the values I established while growing up in an all-female household in rural Appalachia were grounded in deep opposition to my life goals. When you are the daughter of a disabled woman in poverty, you are expected to forego your own personal goals in order to stay home and care for your mother. Leaving for college was considered a personal affront and a strong offense to my community and to my deeply held Appalachian values of kinship and loyalty.

What is most unfortunate about my experience (and likely, the experience of many other first-generation college students) is that once I did learn the ins and outs of the higher education institution, it was too late for me; I had already acquired a large amount of debt and ran out of funding just before the beginning of what was supposed to be my last semester of college. Although I experienced several years of hardship after that, I didn’t allow my inexperience and my lack of knowledge of how the system works to destroy my motivation. My educational goals had to be put on the back burner for a while, but with the help of Public Allies, I’m getting back on track again.

I owe my persistence to something I’ve previously mentioned on this blog: the connectedness and support of my family. Without the unconditional love of my mother and sister, I wouldn’t be here today. Growing up in poverty, you learn that your strongest and most important resource is your relationships. The love I experienced and relied upon for strength throughout my life has been one of the biggest motivators for me to find a way to finish my degree and build my career. I want success for myself, but more than that, I want to bring my knowledge and my experience back to my community in order to serve them. Although I’ve faced varying degrees of hardship, being a first-generation college student and an Ally has afforded me the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to utilize my strengths in order to become a better leader and an advocate for other folks who are multiply marginalized. Public Allies has taught me to focus on my assets and to collaborate with others in order to be my most effective self, and in learning that, I have been able to stay motivated to finish my degree and move on with my life.

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