Same Campus, Different Experiences: First Generation College Students Share Their Stories

“You need to slow down. Don’t work so hard buddy.”

“You always have to work.”

There’s more to college than work.”

“You have your whole life to work.”

“You should relax with us for a while.”  

“You’re leaving again?”

I would hear those statements and more from roommates and others who struggled to grasp the concept that I had to work my way through school.

Although the comments often came from a well-intentioned place, they often left me feeling invisible and misunderstood.

As a first generation low-income college student, working multiple jobs with a full class load, I found myself living, learning, and working with students who were not first generation, students who didn’t need to take out loans because their parents, other relatives or loved ones paid their tuition.

As a first generation low-income college student working multiple jobs with a full class load, I found myself living, learning, and working with students who were not first generation, who did not have to work because their parents, other relatives or loved ones were able to deposit large sums of money into their bank accounts weekly or bi-weekly.

To those students and their families, school was their job, and they were compensated accordingly.

As misunderstood as I would sometimes feel, that was definitely a concept of their lived experiences that I struggled to grasp as well.

“What does that even feel like?” I would often wonder.

Multiple jobs, some on campus, some off. I definitely acknowledge that having the opportunity to work as a resident assistant was a huge lifesaver for me in that while I was there I had a guaranteed roof over my head, and that the room and board fees were heavily reduced. Without that, and other programmatic and academic interventions, I may not have finished school.

To this day, I can still remember critical moments where my academic journey might have ended had it not been for certain people and programs that recognized and worked to reduce social inequity on multiple levels.

To this day, I can still remember others whose academic journeys were halted temporarily or indefinitely, more often than not due to lack of financial support.

I now work with and support many first-generation college students who find themselves at the front of their paths, learning to navigate their new environment.

The leisurely and seemingly carefree environments that are often depicted in the pamphlets, online materials, through merchandising, and commercials often miss the lived realities of many first generation college students.

Equality Doesn't mean Justice

There is a tendency to assume that, just because we attend college that we are all in the same place socioeconomically. That assumption couldn’t be further from reality.

Also check out:

In second year, FLIP looks to create a first-gen student community

Columbia University Class Confessions facebook page.

Ubuntu,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW

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I'm a Social Worker, Educator, and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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2 Responses

  1. dpn552 says:

    I remember the hurt I felt in college when a friend said that he wouldn’t work because he didn’t want to interfere with his education. I didn’t have a choice — no work, no education. I guess I assumed that he would at least understand my circumstances since we were both African American. It was a learning experience for me (I didn’t know any African Americans who were that well off) but a painful one. He retired (early) a couple of years ago. Still experiencing benefits that I can barely imagine.

    • Right. Hearing that he didn’t want to work because work interfered with education can imply that those who do work, do so wanting to interfere with their education. It completely ignores the lived realities of folks who absolutely have to work in order to simply be there on campus, in addition to trying to manage the course load. I would sometimes hear that from certain administrators as well. They would often say “academics come first”, and I would often respond with “but don’t you know I HAVE to work?”

      Yes, that sounds like a painful learning experience. Sometimes I too expect a certain level of common understanding among AA people, as if to say, “even if you have that economic privilege, you still understand what I’m going through right?” When it’s yes, I can feel the validation and solidarity, or at least understanding. When it’s no, I can feel invalidated, sad, and disappointed. It’s another reminder that even within groups that are marginalized, there are different lived experiences.

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