Orignally Published on
Caffeinated Confidence
May 2016

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The First Generation Struggle

There wasn’t any doubt I would go to college one day. Learning was my past time. My passion. The sheer idea that I would someday be able to attend an institution dedicated to acquiring knowledge was like a dream come true. I couldn’t wait! But, honestly, if I was being completely truthful that wasn’t the full reason of why I wanted to go to college. After all, I could see right in front of me just how much more difficult life is for those who don’t have a college degree. I didn’t want that life. I wanted something better.

But unfortunately, the world of academia is difficult to navigate if you have no one to turn to. I couldn’t ask my parents what campus life was like or how hard college courses were. I couldn’t even ask them how to apply for the scholarships which we desperately needed me to get. They never went through any of that. Even simply applying to college was a challenge on its own. I had no idea what the SAT or ACT was. I didn’t know which colleges to apply to or how to choose a major. Perhaps most importantly, I had no idea what criteria universities wanted to see in their applicants beyond "good grades". Again, I couldn’t ask my family. They were as clueless as I was.

Though I did eventually survive college, it was difficult. Coming in, I thought college was no more than taking classes and getting good grades. Like high school, but more advanced. But, my naïve notion was quickly shattered when I learned from my other peers (those who had guidance) that college could be way more than that. There were internships that I could apply to and research I could participate in. There were opportunities that allowed me to pursue my interests and build my resume. These are things I would have otherwise not known about because no one felt the need to share them with me. So I was left scrambling, trying to figure out all this new information that was given to me, because if I didn’t, I feared falling too far behind. I felt like I was already at a disadvantage.

And if I thought navigating undergrad was difficult, grad school was a whole other beast. Nothing and no one could have prepared me what was to come. First of all, I knew nothing about the GRE or its subject tests. Just figuring out where (and how) to apply or if I could even afford a graduate degree (because how was I supposed to know that STEM PhDs get waived tuition?) was a whole other monster I was forced to deal with alone. Not to mention that grad school terminology such as assistantship, dissertation, fellowship, candidacy-those terms simply were not in mine nor my family’s vocabularies. So, instead of asking the right questions that would help me prepare for grad school (i.e. What should I look for in a mentor? How tough was the transition to grad school? What did you wish you knew before starting your program?) I had to rely on hours of panicked google searching in order to even touch just the surface of this knowledge that I was never privileged to get.

People praise us. They say how smart we must have been to have made it. But intelligence has nothing to do with it. It was a combination of luck and hard work (but mostly luck, let's be honest) that allowed me to stumbled into the opportunities that I did. While succeeding as a first generation college or grad student is certainly worthy of praise, few seem to realize just how difficult our journey has been from the very beginning. We may have made it, but how many benefits were we unaware of because we were scrambling to figure everything out last minute? How many opportunities did we find out about a little too late because no one thought we might need to know? If I got a dollar for every time I’ve uttered the phrase “I wish I’d known that sooner,” well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have as many student loans.

I could go on. Even though I made it to grad school, there are so many things I still don't know. And I haven't even touched the additional struggle we face if since first generation students are more likely to identify as racial minorities from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Of course, I don't have any solutions. I just want someone to think about this issue. I also hope that if someone out there can relate to anything I’ve talked about thus far, that they can realize that they’re not alone and, though trying at times, it is possible to make it through.