Painting the Portrait of a First-Gen Student

Defining the Term

Hello and welcome to the first edition of First Gen! This week we’re setting the course for this newsletter by defining what “first-generation” is and talking about why I felt a newsletter like this was even necessary.

As of this writing, there are over a hundred of you reading along so I wanted to say thank you for the support this newsletter has gotten in the past week! I couldn’t be more grateful.

Alright, let’s get into it:

So who gets to be first-generation, anyway?

While preparing for the newsletter I learned that if you ask the question, “who counts as a first-generation college student?” you’re not going to get a straightforward answer. The National Center for Education Statistics says it’s a student whose parents haven’t attended college, which seems straightforward enough, but it raised some questions for me.

I was raised by a Ghanaian immigrant worked for years as a teacher before coming to the US and learning that her post-secondary education didn’t count for much here. My mom has been in different forms of school for most of my life: first the GED, then training to be a certified nursing assistant, then a licensed nurse practitioner, and soon a registered nurse — God bless immigrant mothers — but none of that really matters when it comes to determining my status.

As an immigrant daughter from a low-income neighborhood in a large east coast city who attends a private university, I fit in the profile in a lot of ways. But there are a lot of other first-generation college students who look nothing like me. There are students from rural towns attending land grant universities, and the millions of students at community colleges across the country (and actually, nearly half of first-gen students attend community college, according to NCES).

Some sources say that of the 19.9 million college students in the country, about a third are first generation. But one study found that depending on the definition of first generation you use the number can vary from 22 to 77 percent.

So if painting a portrait of first-generation students isn’t so easy, how are colleges determining which of their students qualify as first-gen? A lot of them just go with the definitions that work for them. Like the engineering school that wouldn’t admit a student as first-gen because his deceased father had completed a Bachelor’s, even though he’d been raised by his mother, who had no college experience. That’s the same definition the Common Application uses but the federal education department bases first-gen status on the education level of the parents in the household.

Ultimately, it boils down to the shared set of experiences that come with navigating the college process without the guidance your peers take for granted. The isolation you experience after you’ve cleared the already confusing hurdle of admissions only to find yourself in the foreign space of academia becomes the throughline of your college career. That’s what characterizes “first-generation.”

Building Community

If you’re like me, you’ll try to find a first-gen community by gravitating toward people who look like you. But many of the Black students I met as a freshman were the children of upper-class professionals or went to expensive boarding schools, and because of the way college students talk about money it’s easy to think everyone is just as broke as you are when they’re actually far from it. (More on that another week.)

A lot of colleges try to meet the needs of first-generation students with grants and affinity groups that focus on professional development. My college, for example, offers most of its support through a scholarship program for first-gen students that only accepts 10 people per incoming class. I’m sure things like that are a great resource for the people who have access to it, but I’ve spent most of college looking for a space where I could talk with other first-gen students about the messiness of the experience in an open and honest way — one that doesn’t so closely tie my identity with my ability to overcome obstacles. I hope that’s what First Gen will be.

📚 Good reads:

Every week I’ll try to share articles, podcasts, videos, Twitter threads, etc. that I find interesting. Usually related to the topic at hand, but sometimes just things that spark my interest.

  • The Changing Meaning of Affirmative Action” by Louis Menand for The New Yorker
  • Revolutionary Thinking? Colleges let students opt out of admissions exams” by Stacy Teicher Khadaroo The Christian Science Monitor
  • America’s Favorite Poison” by Olga Khazan for The Atlantic

And one last note: The past couple weeks I’ve done interviews with some fellow first gen students about everything from family expectations to financial aid, and I’d like to speak with more! Email me at zipporah@firstgennews.com to be featured in upcoming editions of First Gen.

Thanks for reading,

Zipporah

You May Also Like