NAVIGATING NEW WATERS: MY EXPERIENCE AS A FIRST GENERATION COLLEGE STUDENT

Kelli Slogan | Staff Writer

When I first came to the University of Pittsburgh, I felt a little out of place, as many first year students do in such a new environment. I didn’t particularly think anything of it because most people express the same sentiments, and it felt normal- moving from high school to college is a big step, and a lot of students are overwhelmed. However, by sophomore year I came to realize that I wasn’t particularly overwhelmed by the content of the coursework, it was more so the whole culture that I felt alienated by. Overall, I love college- I love my courses and what I am learning, I love the different organizations that I am active in, and I love the friends that I have made. However, as I’ve come to meet more people and be exposed to different experiences, I’ve come to realize that a lot of my peers have more in common in their upbringing with each other than I do with any of them, and that a major part of this is coming from a place of economic privilege.

I am a first generation college student, meaning that neither of my parents or their parents have a college degree. My sister and I are the first in my family to attend university. This is a fact that my parents and I myself are incredibly proud of. Most people in America will either achieve the same level of education that their parents did, or less than, so I am certainly not the norm. Of course on the base level I always knew this- I am proud to be a part of the group TRIO (Student Support Services) which gives resources, educates, and helps foster a sense of community for first-generation and low income students. Many of my peers don’t even know what this organization is, but TRIO has helped me navigate this new territory on countless occasions, whether it be lessons in making resumes, cover letters, understanding what sort of etiquette is expected in professional interviews, or simply ways to effectively study. With college being treated as a necessity, yet placed out of reach like a luxury, groups like TRIO are essential for many students, myself included, to succeed not just academically, but within collegiate culture.

I began to realize how much of a difference there is between my upbringing and that of my peers on a more personal level, later. Many little signs of having a privileged upbringing began to culminate, until I realized that these anecdotes were not really outliers of some super wealthy person I had met, but instead the norm for most students I came into contact with. Immediately, I began to notice things that made me feel very out of place. First, I was often the only one in a given group to not have travelled out of the country. Having those opportunities, even just having a passport, seems like a sign of wealth to me. Growing up it was always the few kids whose families took a trip to Europe, or went on a summer cruise that were the outsiders, but in this new environment, I was the outsider, listening to people talk about their trips to Spain or France or the Caribbean as some frivolous family trip, rather than an abroad adventure that would take years for me to save for. I know many people from my town whose families still live outside of the United States, but who can’t afford to see them because the travelling costs too much. Meanwhile, the people I meet in college are visiting there for fun, or on “mission” trips. I was also often the only one in a given group to not have had a cleaning lady for their house- growing up it was my friends’ parents who had those jobs, not the ones who hired them. A lot of people I’ve met also literally have more than one house, and it’s often intergenerational, too! I can’t even imagine having grandparents and parents who both have multiple properties. These little differences in upbringing changed from new sensations that I would tell friends from home about to factors that made me feel isolated.

Aside from physical signs of these differences in our backgrounds, many people who have parents that have gone through college themselves understand subtle, unspoken rules about the system. Things that aren’t explicit, such as asking for extensions, asking for extra credit, going to office hours to discuss grades, are all things that can get students ahead, or at least keep them on track, but they aren’t exactly taught to you if you don’t already have the knowledge of them. Discussing higher education like law school, medical school, and graduate school is even worse in many cases. I entered freshman year with minimal understanding of what subjects you could even attend graduate school for, as well as not knowing the different exams needed to get into all of these institutions, or the costs. No one in my family, and very few people from my town that I knew growing up had jobs or worked in areas that required these types of degrees.

One phenomenon in particular that I have noticed is that many of the same students who talk about their trips abroad and their lake houses and their dads being doctors are the same ones who complain about not receiving enough financial aid. I often hear the argument “well I’m paying for school, not my parents!” which is valid, and I’m all for reforming the college education system and especially the financing of it. However, the wealth of a student’s parents still plays a vital role in their education and financial standing. Yes, students may have to take out loans themselves, but their parents’ jobs and the area they grew up in granted them some privilege, even if their parents themselves aren’t actually paying every cent of tuition. Living in a wealthy area means higher property taxes, and therefore “better” schools, extra-curriculars, letters of recommendation, and overall connections, which all contribute to one’s ability to go to college. A  lot of these same students like to “act poor” as though it’s some fun new phase in life. Being unemployed in college and eating ramen a few nights a week off of your meal plan is not the same as growing up poor and facing intergenerational poverty. There are literally fellow students forced to commute to school, go to class in between multiple jobs, or even live in their cars, so to hear many of my peers throw around these words so frivolously is really disheartening. I often step back and try to make myself aware of my privilege. Though I may have faced more hardships than some of my peers, I am still unbelievably fortunate to be attending Pitt and to have the opportunity to live on campus, within walking distance to all of my classes, extra-curriculars, and university events.

Aside from students with economic privilege being outright unaware, there are even more comments that seem, on the surface, harmless, but make me and many others feel completely out of place. It’s exhausting having to listen to people whose biggest problem was choosing a school to go to out of a variety of elite universities, as though I don’t know dozens of people, myself included, who would have loved to have even been given the choice to attend an out of state school, or have the realistic option to apply to multiple schools. Many students I have encountered at Pitt are able to pay much more just to have that “away from home experience.” Not to say that this isn’t a valid reason to choose a more expensive out-of-state school, or that it isn’t stressful choosing a college- it is simply alienating to me as a first generation student who only had the resources and ability to realistically apply to in-state schools. Having to choose schools is stressful for most students looking into college, but having those options even more limited is just as, if not more stressful than having to choose between a plethora of options. Often, the students who do get into many of these prestigious universities aren’t much smarter, they simply have more resources, can travel to tour different schools, and have the money to apply to multiple schools. I graduated from a high school where a lot of people don’t go to college right after graduating, and many don’t go at all. Many people either forgo college altogether, save up and work for a couple years before attending, or go to community college. I know that many of these people are surely smarter and more competent than a lot of the students I have met at Pitt, yet they aren’t given a proper chance to display their knowledge because of their lack of resources and connections. Another issue that I have witnessed firsthand is the amount of students who attend Pitt and see very limited versions of the city based on their college experience, yet claim it as their home. Many of these students see only the tourist destinations and gentrified areas, things that aren’t even accessible to many native Pittsburghers. So often I hear “That’s so nice that you live so close” as though I had a viable option to pay out-of-state tuition and constantly account for travel costs.

Many first generation students, myself included also don’t have the luxury of not worrying about our GPA. So much of the rhetoric I hear from my classmates is that you are not defined by your grades, which I believe to be absolutely true- however, when you are relying on a system that dictates your opportunities based on that number then you must comply. I don’t have many other connections at my fingertips, so my coursework and involvement on campus must speak for my ability in many cases. Forfeiting or dropping a class, missing a semester, aren’t actual options for many. People from lower income backgrounds or first generation students aren’t given the option in our current college culture to prioritize our health, mental or physical. For many, missing a semester means being forced to drop out of school altogether.

Another factor that I recently encountered, in which I have had a drastically different experience than many of my peers, is applying for internships. Many of the students I have met at Pitt don’t have to worry about working during school or about gaining professional experience before graduation. It is often the case that their parents either already work in the field that they also want to pursue, or they have plenty of connections, including friends, family members, and colleagues that are in that field. It is unfair knowing that even though I have worked so hard and genuinely care about my studies, work, clubs, volunteering, and internships, that someone with a lower GPA, no experience, and fewer qualifications might be hired before me just because their parents know someone. This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily a bad person- it’s simply the way our current education system and job market works. Obviously GPA and internship experience aren’t the most important factors that should be determining who gets what position- but getting to those spots based on personal connections and not merit, is even worse. Within this realm of internships there is also the issue of unpaid internships. I, of course think this practice needs to be changed, but because I don’t currently have the power to change that, I must work with what I am given. If I get an unpaid internship position I still have to work at my regular paying job during it, but many people can take full time unpaid positions for the experience.

Luckily for my sister and me, my parents prioritized our education, working full time just so that we could have better opportunities than they did. However, it shouldn’t have to be this way, and for many others whose parents didn’t have the means to go to college, this is not the case. Our current higher education system all too often prioritizes wealth and status over intelligence and originality in students. Colleges do not typically extend their resources to those who need and deserve it most, but instead serve as institutions for maintaining power structures, often prioritizing their function as a place of business over their function as a center for education. No one should have to forfeit their health and happiness merely to get through college, but that is the reality for too many of my peers.

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