Role Reversal: First Gen Students and Their Parents

A newsletter about the highs and lows of the first generation college student experience. By Zipporah Osei, a journalist and senior at Northeastern University.

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I’ve talked a lot about “first gen” being an important personal marker for myself and millions of other college students, but the title says as much about ourselves as it does our parents. Ultimately, the term only applies to us because of the lives our parents have led, and because of that, the relationships we have with them are a huge part of the experience. When the undertone of your entire academic career is living up to the expectation that you will achieve something your parents weren’t able to, your relationship to them can become complicated, to say the least.

Many first generation students exist as the bridge between their parents and their college. This means explaining why you have to pay to apply to a school or handling all the research and booking that goes into college visits. I’ve met people who say they’ve never filled out FAFSA because their parents handle it for them. Few first generation college students can say the same. 

For a lot of us, that “reversal of roles” extends beyond things to do with college. Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent an hour between classes on the phone with a parent, helping them renew their insurance, pay a bill online, or order something from Amazon. (🙋🏿)

And then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum, whose parents remove their support entirely because they don’t understand why their child is even going to college. 

Parental involvement can sometimes be the difference between a student graduating or dropping out. This article in The Hechinger Report looks at colleges like Virginia Commonwealth University and UCLA where reaching out to parents has been effective in curbing dropout rates.

In putting together this week’s newsletter, I wanted to get a better understanding of how parents see themselves in this process, so I dove into “Giving Primacy to the Voice of Parents: A Qualitative Study of the Involvement of Parents of First-Generation College Students,” a study by Dawn L. Bruner. In it, Bruner speaks to parents of first gen students and professionals at a number of colleges to understand three main things:

  1. How do parents and institutions define what parental involvement should be?
  2. How do parents of first gen students actually get involved?
  3. How can colleges do a better job of facilitating involvement with parents of first gen students?

Here’s a snapshot of the themes that came out of those conversations:

‘What I know about your school is that you go there’

I’m not a parent, and if I ever have kids they won’t be first generation students, which means there are limits to how much I can speak from this perspective. So I decided to call on someone who could better give me some insight: my mom, Afua Dufie. 

My mom and me during my high school graduation. I promise my glasses game has improved.

When I asked her if she’d be willing to talk about her relationship to higher education, she said yes, but she was the first to admit that I’ve guided us both through the process. Our conversation was winding (and at one point derailed by her asking what I was planning to wear to graduation) but she was candid and, I think, gave a perfect glimpse into what it’s like to be the parent of a first generation college student. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ZO: Do you think higher education is important?

AD: Yes, it’s important because it helps you to upgrade your knowledge and after you can get a better job. It helps you in this system so I think it’s good. Going to college, to me, is a prestige. I think I feel this way because of where I’m coming from. Back home (Ghana), there are a lot of kids who are smart and could go to school, but because the parents don’t have money they are not able to go. So my kids trying hard and going to college makes me happy. 

ZO: Did you know about everything that goes into getting into college in this country? The application process, and FAFSA, and everything like that? 

AD: No, I didn’t know until you applied. I heard bits and pieces of it but I’ve never applied so how would I know? And since you got in, I dropped you off and I haven’t been there. You know I have to work and I can’t always take off. 

ZO: Do you feel like my university reaches out to you and gives you information since you can’t always come up here? 

AD: When some departments are having programs they send me emails about what is going on at the school, but the information is to raise money. They always email me when they want money. But other than that, not really. 

ZO: If you wanted to find out more information about my school would you know who to contact? 

AD: I’d call you because going through you is what I know. Before you entered the school there was that lady in the financial aid office that I spoke to. That was when we were trying to figure out if we could afford it, but I haven’t talked to anyone since then. What I know about your school is that you go there. 

ZO: Do you think your experience with us being in college is different than parents who’ve gone to college in this country? 

AD: Yes, it’s better for them. It’s easier because if you’ve already been there then you understand what’s going on more than those who don’t know their left and right. I know a girl who was supposed to go to college but couldn’t go because the mother is uneducated and the girl didn’t know how to get financial aid and nobody was giving them advice. It’s sad but some of us don’t know these things. 

Very early in our conversation, my mom started repeating a lot of the themes that came up in Bruner’s research. An acknowledgement of her status as “non-college-educated” and the feeling of separation from the institution I attend that comes with that.

She also pointed to a key dilemma for the parents of first generation students: many of them idolize getting a college education, but despite their best intentions, few of them really understand what that takes. 

📚 Good reads:

  • “How one Minnesota university more than doubled its native student graduation rate” by Caroline Preston for The Hechinger Report
  • “Graduates Of Historically Black Colleges May Be Paying More For Loans: Watchdog Group” by Chris Arnold for NPR paired with “Black Colleges Have to Pay More for Loans Than Other Schools” by Adam Harris for The Atlantic
  • “Facial Recognition Moves Into a New Front: Schools” by Davey Alba for The New York Times

Thanks for reading, 

Zipporah

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 zipporah@firstgennews.com.

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