Culture Shock

Last week we talked about getting into college, and this week the focus is on that period of adjustment that comes as you try to settle into the next phase of your life — and all the culture shock that comes with it.

My moments of culture shock typically come when I’m in the middle of telling what I think is a harmless story about my life before college. I remember telling someone during my freshman year that my high school had been able to afford copies of required reading, so my English teachers made do by having us read photocopied packets of plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Fences” that they begged us not to lose or get wet.

Obviously I knew that not every school had these problems, but it was a very normal part of my high school experience, and I didn’t think much of it. I’d told the story without expecting much of a reaction, but instead I was given that somber look of upper middle-class guilt and a hushed, “That’s so sad.”

What I got in that moment, and the dozens that followed, was a reminder that I didn’t quite fit in this space. It seems based on the reading I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had that many first-gen students can point to their own small but meaningful Moments of Realization.

Here’s a short list of some of those instances:

(fun fact: these cost as much as my semester allotment of work study funds ???)

Surviving the transition

It’s become a cliche when talking about first-gen students but that culture shock is real. And it’s a big part of the reason that even as colleges work to recruit more of us, there’s still a big problem with retention.

Only 10 percent of low income, first-gen students who start college graduate in six years. The national average for graduation in the same amount of time is 60 percent.

When you ask why, the answers you’ll get are obvious: the transition is hard, the support isn’t there, and the environment is too foreign to navigate alone. And in the rush to get first-gen students on their campuses (lip-service, if you ask me) colleges are placing the onus to transition on the students, which can be a barrier to success in and of itself.

So instead of lecturing my fellow first-gen students on what they can do to improve their experience, I’ve got a couple pointers for the institutions who are supposed to be supporting us.

Stop putting us on blast

Colleges will often try to help first-gen and low-income students out by offering access to events or resources that might otherwise be out of reach  —  which is great! But nothing should be distributed in a way that puts an unwanted spotlight on students. For example, in 2018 Harvard gave low-income students free tickets to the freshman formal, but made them pick up the tickets in a separate line from everyone else.

This can happen in the classroom, too, when professors make assumptions about the backgrounds of their students. You know you get when part of the way you get to know students is by asking what their parents do for work or where they went to undergrad? Unnecessary discomfort.

Be more forthcoming with the information we know you have

The laundry list of things I didn’t know about college until my sophomore year is regrettably very long. I didn’t know you were allowed to appeal for more financial aid. I didn’t know you could ask for a refund to pay for things like books, food, and rent. I didn’t know that I could turn down federal loans I didn’t need, etc.

All of this is information that colleges — knowingly or not — don’t give to students because they assume they have a base of knowledge about how the system works that many of us simply don’t. I don’t know any student, first-gen or not, who wouldn’t benefit from more transparency.

Build networks of first-gen students, alumni, and faculty

One of the most exhausting parts of the transition is the search for people like you. On campuses where first-gen students are in the minority, it can feel near impossible without some kind of group to guide you. Any college that’s committed to fostering first-gen success on their campus should also put the student they enroll in touch with people who can ease them through the process and remind them that they’re not the only person on campus going through it.

Good Reads

  • What we’re doing is not working.’ Why Detroit students struggle in college by Lori Higgins for Chalkbeat
  • The Transformation of Adam Johnson by Emma Pettit for the Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Massachusetts excels at higher education — for the white and well-off by Marcella Bombardieri for the Boston Globe
  • Privilege for the poor: Farming giant gives back — to its workers’ children by Alfonso Serrano for the Hechinger Report

And here’s a little something that made me laugh and brought me right back to high school.

Thanks for reading,


If you are, or know of, a first-generation college student who’d like to be featured in future editions of this newsletter, email me at

A journalist and first-generation college student originally from Yonkers, N.Y., Zipporah is in her last year at Northeastern University. She has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education,...