A First Generation College Student Perspective
Author: Candice B. Limper
In the post-bachelor's degree, students have two main directions to choose: the workforce or higher education. Regardless of the path, we all have our mountains to climb. But, it is important to consider that the terrain is not the same for everyone. For first-generation college students, whose parents had not earned a college degree (first-generation student), pursuing a post-bachelor's education can be the mental equivalence of trekking on an unfamiliar trail without a compass. The following describes the factors that contribute to our hike:
The first and maybe the most obvious challenge for some first-generation students may be determining the purpose in climbing the mountain of higher education, whether a Master's in Science (MS) or a Doctorate in Philosophy (Ph.D.). Pursuing either degree can be especially tricky for those who do not have a mentor to guide them. Sure, all this information is scattered online, but you never really know what you are looking for until you find it. For me, especially toward the end of the bachelor's degree, it had been a period of wondering what the purpose of higher education was because there was a job awaiting post-graduation. Little did I know that getting higher education would expand my mind to see the world in a new light, one with more possibilities than I never even thought were possible.
First-generation students pursuing higher education in itself is an adventure, as some of us were not equipped with the "right tools." This is because we were not necessarily groomed to pursue an academic career. A lot of us did not attend the best school through our previous educational experiences. In our earlier formative years, the focus was just making sure we got to class and did not fail because the expectation was to find a job that did not require a college education. For this reason, some of us have not been well prepared in terms of knowledge, knowing how to study, and level of focus required for doing well in school. This academic ineptness can be problematic when there is an expectation of being at a certain level when first getting into a graduate program; mainly, if these skills were not picked up as an undergraduate.
A factor that can affect the hike would be not having enough sustenance through our relationships with family and friends. Spending so much time on something that nobody else in your family or circle of friends understands, whether it is the process or the actual subject matter, can be somewhat isolating. For example, family and friends may not know why you want to pursue higher education, only inquiring about the endpoint. Can you imagine working 40 hours on your studies and then working part or full time at a job outside of class and someone asks you when you will be done? It can be easy to tell when someone is struggling in school because of their grades, but seeing that someone is struggling to find their tribe is more difficult. The ability to keep on contributing to these relationships will hinder or build stronger bonds. This topic is something that is not talked about but has an impact on many people's academic trajectories.
If a first-generation student decides they are interested in pursuing higher education, the next challenge is determining how the benefits will outweigh the cost. Seeking an MS can be costly! A significant salary reduction can accompany pursuing a degree. And more often than not, this pursuit is accompanied by debt for the actual program and living costs. As far as MS programs go, there are programs designed to help first-generation students; however, they may be hard to find and are short in supply. It may be hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on an education that does not directly equate to having a career immediately afterward. To direct this concern, some students hold jobs outside their career interests to negate some of the debt. However, this can prolong the actual program and have adverse effects on grades, especially for those who are not initially prepared for graduate school.
Once you have determined where to go on the hike, obtained tools and sustenance, and decided the trudge is worth the effort, the challenge is to keep on keeping on. The best thing for me was finding a niche I felt comfortable with on campus. If you do not find one, make one. Keep in mind that your institution may have great support, so make sure to reach out if they do. If you do not have access to this type of aid, this website is a great place to get started. Our goal is to supplement supportive programs for first-generation students. Now, it is time to get out there and enjoy the hike!