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How apathy can be a systemic barrier for first-generation students

Josh Farris, an alumnus of the University of Virginia

Hello and welcome (back) to First Gen! (Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.)

For as long as this newsletter has existed I’ve been the only writer sharing my thoughts with all of you reading. In that time, I’ve always been aware that my experience as a first-generation college student, and now graduate, was just one experience. 

To really share the highs and lows of the first-generation college student experience, I’m opening up First Gen to be a space for students, graduates, and educators to share the aspects of their first-gen experiences that have shaped them the most. You’ll still hear from me, particularly as it relates to navigating post-college life, but you’ll also get perspectives from others in the community. 

Do you want to write for First Gen? Learn how you can do that here.

The first of these perspectives come from Josh Farris, an alumnus of the University of Virginia, whose experience trying to study abroad as a sophomore in college showed him what he was up against as a first-generation college student without institutional support systems. 

When I was in college, studying abroad was something I wanted to do but shied away from because it seemed too complicated and costly even at an institution that has a lofty goal to give 100% of undergraduates a global experience. (Sorry, guys, you missed one.) 

Lofty as it is, it’s an admirable goal. Research has shown that taking advantage of global opportunities benefits college students by improving retention rates and post-college employability. First-generation colleges students are underrepresented in these programs because of financial barriers and a lack of institutional support to get involved. 

A survey of 245 staff of Federal TRIO programs found that many staff members weren’t encouraging first-gen students to participate because they thought the experience was a luxury the students didn’t need. 

Farris writes about what it was like to come up against a similar apathy from some of the staff at his own university as he hit a roadblock in efforts to enrich his college experience with study abroad. 

‘A second poverty’

In my second year of college, I really wanted to study abroad in Spain. I had been working on my Spanish for years and I wanted a chance to live the language. After months of paperwork, I was approved. I couldn’t afford my own flight, so I had to choose the group flight, which was more expensive but would later be covered by my scholarship and financial aid. 

The flight was leaving from New York City so I had to take a 7-hour train ride from Virginia for as cheap as I could find. That morning, my train was delayed. I hurried with two suitcases and my backpack, but when I arrived, it was too late to board. 

“My train was delayed! I just got here! Can I change my flight to the next one?” I nervously requested. 

“We’ll have to put you on standby, so it will be another day or two,” the front desk attendant told me when I explained my situation. 

I panicked and called my advisor to inform her of my situation.

“Oh, that’s unfortunate,” she said. Just book a hotel.” 

When I told her I only had $27 in my account, she was indifferent/unsympathetic. I didn’t know anyone in the city and she had no advice for me.

“Just let me know what you figure out and I’ll tell the school in Spain that you will be late,” she said.

At that moment, I felt both poor and unloved. There are two ways to be poor. It’s one thing to grow up in poverty, it’s another for schools to inflict a second poverty on you as a first-generation and low-income college student. Apathy, whether in academia or in the broader society, is the second poverty that so many students like me face.  

Upset by her response, I called the person in charge of my scholarship but all she suggested was that I talk to the staff again. I gave up. I found a spot next to the bathroom and tried to sleep against the wall. I was tired and deeply upset. Maybe it was my fault? Maybe coming here was a mistake. 

As I rested, an older woman who was a custodian startled me awake. She put a blanket over me and a pillow under my head. I only remember seeing her kind and motherly face. It was the first time all day I felt someone was looking out for me and it was coming from a stranger, not my own advisors, people who were paid to help me. Before drifting back to sleep, my last thought was, “The poor take care of each other”.

I awoke a few hours later, found another staff member, and pleaded with her. She was more supportive of my dilemma, checked the system, and got me on the flight I needed. 

It was the best news I had heard all year! I thanked her and skipped to my seat. Over 10 hours later, I finally arrived in Spain. 

My trip had not started off well and it hurt that I was the only one in the program that missed the flight and had nowhere to sleep. My advisors couldn’t help me because they didn’t know me. They assumed that I was just like everyone else that studied abroad-affluent and financially supported by family. They assumed more than they asked about me. 

As Mother Theresa said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked, and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

First-generation and low-income students are worth the effort that some in academia are unwilling to give us.

Josh Farris is an educational speaker, an independent consultant, and an alumnus of the University of Virginia. His dream is to be the next Dumbledore even though he is a Hufflepuff.

Watch me discuss the steep drop in college enrollment on April 5!

I had the opportunity to be part of an upcoming webinar about the declining enrollment crisis hosted by the Lumina Foundation. 

Come for the opening remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and stay for a conversation between yours truly and Jon Marcus, editor at Hechinger Report. We discuss his recent article “Another million adults ‘have stepped off the path to the middle class’.”

Our Nation’s Enrollment Plunge starts at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5. You can sign up for the webinar here.

Submit to First Gen!

If you’d like your work to be featured in a future newsletter, please send your pitches for personal essays, articles, and photojournalism about the first-generation college student experience. You don’t have to be first-gen to submit, but you do have to have a story to tell relating to the first-gen experience. The guidelines for pitching can be found here.

Thank you for reading! You can follow me on Twitter @zipporahosei and reach me for questions and comments at zipporahosei@gmail.com.

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