I knew Sarah was one of them on the first day of class. We made eye contact as I reviewed the lengthy roll of campus resources listed on my syllabus. “Just so you know,” I said, “all of these people are here to help you. No extra charge. You’ve already paid tuition. These services are included.” Sarah’s classmates doodled on the syllabus. Some transferred essay due dates from the course schedule into their calendars. But Sarah drew a star next to one of the resources. “You might as well use them, right?” I added. Writing centers and campus counselors and diversity-inclusion programs want students to succeed. But as a first-generation college student I avoided all of them, assuming I couldn’t afford the extra bill. Now, as college faculty, I want my students to know what I didn’t.
According to College Board, more than 30 percent of today’s undergraduate students are the first in their families to go to college. Two-thirds of first-generation students attend community college, many part-time. They are disproportionately minorities from low-income backgrounds. And even for those of us who win the elusive admission ticket, three out of five won’t graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Very few of us attend graduate school.
First-generation college students who are now college faculty, such as myself, learn to keep our status quiet. We know better than to admit how much we still don’t know. Most of my colleagues at American University in Washington, D.C., where I’ve been teaching for five years, attended Ivy League institutions. A faculty member in another department once commiserated, “Well, I was the first in my family to attend Harvard, so I know how you feel.” The distance I’d traveled from a rural Missouri town with a population less than American University’s first-year class to college was a far more uncertain path.
I decided I was college-bound in ninth grade. My class was on a field trip to General Mills and Watlow Manufacturing, two industrial plants that fueled our hometown economy. We formed a circle around our guidance counselor, Mr. Eggleston. “Look around,” he said, gesturing toward the assembly line. “These are good jobs. These are good people. We can get you plant jobs that pay $10 an hour or more. You can live in town on that.” Mr. Eggleston waved to a few high-school graduates he knew. “Or you leave. Go to college. Be something more than a factory worker. Choice is yours. I’ll help you either way.” And he did. He showed me how to fill out college applications and apply for scholarships. He talked to my parents about my academic potential and suggested we schedule campus visits. At first, my parents refused to fill out the FAFSA; they thought it was an invasion of privacy. Mr. Eggleston convinced them that without those numbers, a college wouldn’t consider my application.
Delaying entering the workforce was an investment, even if it seemed a risk to my family. College Board reports that over a 40-year working life, a college graduate will earn 66 percent more than their peers with only a high-school diploma. Like Mr. Eggleston, my parents supported my choices, even when they didn’t understand them.
Sarah says that her family also brags about her college path. She’s the smart one, the brave kid from a tiny town in Virginia who graduated from high school in a class of 11. But when she visits home, just like I did, she’s expected to have more answers than she does. “What are you studying?” people ask. “What are you going to do with that expensive degree?” Sarah doesn’t know yet. Neither did I.
Compared to their peers whose parents went to college, most first-generation students need more time to declare a major and are more likely to switch majors. As a first-year student, I pledged myself to the business school at Monmouth College in Illinois. It made sense. I’d grown up in a small family pest-control business. We lived in the country and grew corn, raised chickens, and sold firewood by the side of the road. I knew how to do whatever the job was and to make customers happy. But then I took an accounting class and ran from the major. I switched to government. An internship at a prosecutor’s office saved me from law school. The reading load in my classes was entirely manageable, but a summer spent at the Missouri State Archives showed me that I didn’t want to use my history degree to trace genealogies.
When first-year students tell me they’re undecided in their field of study, I tell them it’s courageous not to know. They rub elbows with students who have clear career trajectories, who brag about their networks that will ensure employment after graduation. Instead, I tell them to try things on, to intern, to volunteer, to job shadow. The first time I designed a lesson plan and stood in front of a class, teaching thrilled me, but I needed to try on plenty of majors that didn’t fit to find one that did.
In the college-writing course I teach, when the first major essay was due, Sarah needed an extension. “I’m sorry to ask,” she said. “It just took me longer to understand the assignment.” I gave her more time on the draft with the caveat that she visit the Writing Center. I pulled up their information on my computer and showed her how to make an appointment. Then I recommended a few tutors I knew could coach her well. Even when first-generation college students know there are resources, they don’t always know how to access them or they don’t feel entitled to do so. Just like first-generation faculty, students don’t know what they don’t know.
When I was a first-year student like Sarah, the phone rang in my dorm room at Monmouth on a sunny Sunday just before spring break. My history professor, Dr. Cordery, called me into her office. “We need to talk about your essay. Bring your notes and any printed resources. Bring every single thing you used to write this paper.” Ten minutes later I knocked on her office door. She didn’t say hello. She pointed to an empty chair. “Now, show me,” she said. “Show me everything you used and where you put it in the paper.” She pointed out how I’d transcribed notes incorrectly, how I’d summarized sources too close to the original text, how I’d cited the authors without following a proper documentation style. “Basically,” she said, “you have no idea how to write for college.”
I’d never written more than a couple of paragraphs in high school. I’d never done research in a database. In my rural community, most assignments were still handwritten, first drafts. I’d sailed through with As because the standards were so low. My teachers knew my family. They knew my brothers. They thought they knew my predetermined path.
I walked back to my dorm ashamed and frustrated and a little grateful. Dr. Cordery could have turned me in for plagiarism or failed me for the course. Instead, she sought the root cause of my misstep so that she’d know how to teach me not to make the same mistake. I sat in the library for hours reading a composition book she’d loaned me. It was a guide for how to write for college: essay structure, thesis statements, rhetorical arguments, outlining, citing research. These are skills I teach daily as a first-generation-student-turned-faculty-member because I know what happens if you come to college without them.
My lack of basic skills is common among first-generation college students. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that these students have lower grade-point averages and the majority need one or more remedial classes to catch up with their peers. Faculty ought to be more patient with what they come to us not knowing, just like Dr. Cordery, and meet them where they are.
Two months into the semester, Sarah shared that she’d missed a deadline for something unrelated to our class. This one seemed inflexible, though, and the consequences were dire. “I got an email about signing up for next year’s housing. I thought it was for something else,” she said. We’d just finished class and lingered packing up our bags. “I was trying to keep all the registrations straight but I messed up. I got my courses, but I don’t know where I’m going to live.”
The next morning, I called my dean’s office. I told them her enrollment was precarious without the ability to use her scholarship on housing. They reached out to Sarah immediately and suggested she file an appeal.
Being flexible and helpful with first-generation college students doesn’t mean that they are getting special treatment. The same resources are available to all students, regardless of what it took to gain admission. But faculty who were also first-generation students need to watch closely for those that slip through the cracks because those students can’t see the sidewalk. Like Sarah, I was hard-working and motivated, but I didn’t even know the questions to ask. I had to learn the hard way how to “do” college.
When I was on the other side of this desk, as a college senior with an internship in Washington, D.C., I drove from Missouri in my car. How else could I move around the city? I’d never travelled on mass transit. I’d never ridden a bus. I brought maps and, apparently, guts.
My family joked that my stay in D.C. was “studying abroad.” When I spoke to my brother by phone, he gave me the weather report like all good Midwesterners do. “Looks like it rains out in those parts a lot.”
“Seems sunny, actually. The leaves are changing colors,” I reported. “I was at the Lincoln Memorial this morning. Gorgeous.”
“Huh. Weather map shows nothing but storms.”
Then, I got it. “I’m in Washington, D.C.,—not Washington state. They’re on opposite sides of the country.”
“Oh.” There was a pause on the other side of the phone. “How’s the car holding up? Did you find a place to get your oil changed?”
When the College of Arts & Sciences at American University organized a first-generation faculty meet up, I hesitated to join. Who would be in the room? Would I be outing myself and confirm their suspicions that I really didn’t belong?
Instead, I found administrators, department chairs, and accomplished scholars sitting around a conference table unpacking their brown-bag lunches. We talked about the masks we often wear with our colleagues and how even our achievements still feel unmerited.
After the first meet-up, we invited first-generation students to a Q & A where they could ask us the questions they were too afraid to ask elsewhere. We shared stories of our mentors and the faculty who chose not to laugh at our naiveté but to hold out their hands and help when we fumbled. Sharing our experiences as first-generation faculty doesn’t hurt our credibility. It helps build it. First-generation college students need role models that have navigated similar paths and succeeded against the odds. We bring a diversity of backgrounds and working-class experiences to the ivory tower. And there are benefits to not knowing the rules. In college and my career, I didn’t know not to knock so I learned to knock louder.
As she left office hours one day, Sarah asked, “Do you know if the gym is free, too? A lot of my friends have been bugging me to go but you know.”
“I’ll find out,” I promised.
And I did. No additional fee is charged. Faculty, though, still have to pay.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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