Sign up for the newsletter
A biweekly newsletter about race and higher education. By Naomi Harris.
First Gen: The Lived Experience
Zipporah Osei wrote about first-gen experiences to add more critical voices to the higher education beat. Photo Credit: Ruby Wallau
Over the past two years, Zipporah Osei offered readers a personal insight into the experience of being a first-generation college student through her Open Campus newsletter, First Gen. What does it mean to return home for the summer and feel the pressure from family? What is it like to not only be a first-generation student but also from a low income background — and what does that mean for affordability? How should “first generation’‘ even be defined?
Zipporah herself was a first-generation college student, graduating in 2020 from Northeastern University. She started her newsletter at the start of 2020. Now, settling into her career at Boston.com, Zipporah has decided to bring her newsletter to an end.
Still, she hopes to continue to press for more and better coverage of what it’s like to navigate college as a first-generation student. Along with reflecting on her own experiences in her newsletter, Zipporah has given others a platform to write about their lives in college, too.
I talked to her about why she started her newsletter, perceptions about first generation students, and the overall experiences of students like her. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What first inspired you to start a newsletter focused on first-generation students? What did you envision for your newsletter?
Much of my own life was shaped by my educational experiences and what I had access to and didn’t have access to. I’m a first-generation college student. I didn’t feel that there was a good amount of coverage from the perspective of first-gen students. A lot of it was people who work in education, who want to help first-generation students, which I think is super important. But I was missing out on hearing from the perspectives of students themselves who knew how complicated the college process was. I felt like starting the newsletter could be a good space for me to sort out my own experiences but also reflect back to people who are also first gen.
What is the general public perception of first-gen? How did you hope to add more nuance or understanding to that public perception?
I wanted to highlight just how complicated the process can be by just living in college as a first-gen student and you don’t have as many resources as you would like but also some of the vulnerabilities that come with that. It can be kind of a lonely experience going through college, feeling like people at your campus don’t fully understand you and the struggles you’re going through, whether that is faculty and staff or just your fellow peers.
I also wanted to make sure that the newsletter wasn’t all stories of how depressing college is for a first-gen student. College was a really great experience for me and as hard as it was to make sure that I got through and got the degree at the end of it — I wouldn’t have put in all of that effort if I wasn’t getting something out of it too. I wanted to make sure that people reading knew that. Yes, it’s difficult to be a first-gen student but it is so worth the work that you put in to make sure you succeed.
What stories still stick with you? Why?
One of the ones that I still think about a lot is one of my earlier newsletters. It was an interview with my mom and her perspective of me being a first-gen student. Obviously me going to college was something that we had conversations about — but really, more so, on a practical level. I was handling a lot of paperwork and filling out applications and the FAFSA.
What does this process mean to you on a more emotional level? How have you seen it impact me? What thoughts come up for you as you think about me going to college versus your experience of education in this country and in Ghana, where she was born and raised? It was really a rewarding experience for me to do that interview.
But I also think readers really responded well to it. As little as I feel that first-gen students’ perspectives are highlighted in education news — I think the parents of first-gen students are focused on even less. The family aspect of being present is so important that I wrote about it a lot and talked to people about it a lot because of how integral it is to your experience being first gen.
You provided an insightful and important perspective by also elevating the voices of first-generation students. What do you hope resonated with readers or the general public?
Not every first-gen student looks the same. That was something I’ve learned for myself — even in the process of doing the newsletter and talking to different students at different institutions. It can be really easy to think of a certain type of first-gen student. For myself, the image that I related to the most was the one who went to a private institution and was navigating what it was like to be at a predominantly white institution. But there are so many first-gen students who are at rural schools or at community colleges. The newsletter helped me and helped readers to see that.
That’s something that I would like even beyond this newsletter for people to really think more about that — all the different ways that first gen can look and how we should be helping these students to succeed and to graduate and get their degrees and be successful beyond college.
Advice for first-gen students who are about to enter their first college semester this fall?
The start of every semester is a new journey to tackle, especially for first-gen students. When I talk to incoming freshmen, who are about to start college, the thing that I always want to remind them is that if you’re a first-gen student, even getting into college was likely a battle in and of itself. You’re starting college knowing that you have the tools and the resources to accomplish a goal that you’ve set your mind to.
It can seem daunting and overwhelming to get to your campus and be thrown into an environment that you’re not used to. But you know that you have the tools and have put in the work to get there. It’s about having a good support system on campus and seeking out the people who will be willing to help you succeed. But also just reminding yourself that you do belong in this space. You can find a way to make it yours and succeed in it.
This past Monday, education associations, colleges, and universities submitted briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of race conscious admissions — pushing back against the lawsuits filed against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Read the story by Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed.
Student debt relief could be just around the corner. Michael Stratford from Politico obtained internal U.S. Department of Education documents that outline a plan to provide debt relief for millions of borrowers.
- My colleague, Charlotte West, also looked at the student debt crisis for incarcerated students. Check out her analysis of a recent report about the specific consequences of student debt for people in prison.
Molly Minta at Mississippi Today reported on the fears raised in Oxford, Miss., among the LGBTQ community as students grapple with the presumed murder of a well-known Black student leader.
Some college students will be disproportionately affected by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Lauren Lumpkin at The Washington Post reported on abortion access in Southern states that also are home to almost three quarters of HBCUs.
Thanks for Reading!
I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips, and perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.