Today is National First-Generation College Celebration Day.
Dear first-generation college student,
As a high schooler, I wanted nothing more than a way out of my hometown. For hours upon hours, I would sit at the kitchen table crafting scholarship essays, crunching the numbers and stumbling through FAFSA. Despite being at the top of my class, I only applied to state schools and community colleges within a three-hour drive. No one had told me not to. Or rather, no one had told me to aim just a little bit higher. My inherited small town mindset had won out.
Perhaps you can relate.
It was not until I was fully moved into my dorm that I realized most students did not fill out the FAFSA on their own or attend orientation on their own. Never before had I seen such affluence concentrated in one place. If an unexpected $500 expense would send half of Americans into debt, then how could my peers afford thousands of dollars a semester on sororities and fraternities? All of my money went to simply existing and saving. Even if there were a desire to fit into this lifestyle, there was no room in my budget or calendar, and I had no intentions of compromising my upward mobility. I questioned whether or not I belonged on such a campus.
Maybe you experienced this as well.
Quickly, I came to realize that I could no longer consult my family — my greatest advocates — for daily life advice. They could not help me navigate internships, relationships with professors and simple tasks like email etiquette. It was no fault of their own, nor mine, that their kind words of encouragement could not translate in this overwhelmingly upper-middle class environment.
I am sure you understand.
Now a junior, I am incredibly grateful for my identity as a first-generation student and the unique perspective that it has granted me. At first, I believed that I should fit at the university, but now I am quite confident that the university should fit the needs of its students, first-generation students included. Rather than asking ourselves, “Do I belong here?” let us ask instead, “Why is there a lack of economic diversity here?”
When I feel self-doubt creep in, I remind myself that imposter syndrome is very real and dangerous. So is the “hidden curriculum,” the unspoken rules of this very particular game that all students must play. It has only been through frank conversations with professors and mentors that gaps in my knowledge of this space has been filled in.
Over Thanksgiving break, I will return to the same kitchen table where I worked three years ago. This time, instead of working on college applications, I will be studying for this semester’s final exams with a similar fervor. Soon enough, I will begin applying to graduate schools, and I am confident that this time, my inherited fears will not inhibit me.
I hope yours will not inhibit you.
Some of you will return home to your families for the first time since the beginning of the semester. Let seeing your parents, grandparents and siblings serve as a reminder of why you sought a degree in the first place. Think of the efforts they put in for you to get here. Share with your younger siblings the excitement of exploring a strange, new town and gaining new perspectives.
First-gen student, continue to make your space here –– especially when this space was not created for you. You earned it.
Ainsley Ash is a junior public policy leadership major from Meridian, Mississippi.