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.