What the heck is a first-gen???
That was the first thought that went through my mind as I sat in the office of the Director of Graduate Studies for my department.
She was asking me why I did not know about certain resources and processes in graduate school, like why I didn’t know to contact my assigned advisor prior to my arrival on campus. It’s not that she was being unkind – I went to her office asking why I hadn’t heard from the professor mentioned in my admittance letter. It turns out I was supposed to email her, even though I was the only student in my area of study in my cohort. Whoops.
My issues in the program can be attributed to many factors, including my own ignorance about what to expect in a Ph.D. program. That’s where the first-gen thing comes in.
I started and finished my undergrad during the time when the term “first-gen” was gaining ground in universities to describe students. The term “first generation college student” means a student whose parents did not earn a four year degree. If that’s the only standard, I had lack of experience in spades: no one in my family – including parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and all but one uncle who got a track scholarship in California – had attended and/or completed college.
I was in unknown territory from Day 1, and I certainly had no idea how to navigate the bureaucracy of completing a Ph.D. program. The Bachelor’s and Master’s came as a combined result of grit, small universities, and a select few faculty who helped me through (special shout-out to Dr. Robin Gallagher, Dr. Michael Hobbs, and Dr. Jeffery Loomis at Northwest Missouri State University).
When you look at my family history, the fact that I completed my Ph.D. is nothing short of shocking – I have been jokingly told to try the lottery. It turns out, I already did with my educational aspirations. The university structure is not kind to first-gen students, especially students of color and Black students. It’s amazing that I made it as far as I have, and people like my DGS are the reason I am successful.
Did you know what a first-gen was before this post? What are your experiences in the university as someone with little/no university experience in your family? What should we tell administrators and policy makers about access to education?
Comment below, and look out for my next post!