Quantitative Marine Ecology Lab

First-Generation College Day

In the USA, November 8th marks the annual National First-Generation College Day. This day is a celebration of being first gen, a time to unpack the hidden curriculum, and an opportunity to connect with others with similar life experiences. Definitions vary but being “first gen” usually means your parents didn’t go to college or you are the first in your family to attend college. There are other definitions and related terms, including those that are the First Gen in STEM or First Gen Graduate Student.

Entering college as a first gen student is, at best, confusing, but can also be discouraging and disheartening. At many institutions, it is easy to get a feeling that everyone expects that you know what you should be doing. It is hard to put into words how difficult it is to navigate college as a first gen student. There are big pieces like financial aid and housing. However, even small challenges like buying books or going to office hours present challenges. There is always the feeling of being an imposter as first gen.

The week before my first semester of college, I wanted to ensure I was prepared for my first day. I headed to campus to find all my classrooms and map out my routes between building. I also went to the bookstore to purchase books. I worked with the bookstore clerk to determine which books I needed. I was stunned to be spending upwards of $200 for each of my classes. Nervously, I put all the books on my new credit card and nearly maxed it out. I figured I would pay for it down later. On the first day of class, I was surprised to be one of the few students to have my textbooks with them. I figured we would need these in class. After reading the room and chatting with other students, I learned that “required books” meant one of two things. First, in some of my classes, the professor noted in the first week of class that the books they had assigned weren’t required, but recommended, or that they were available in the library for free. Second, I had no sense that people could buy books outside of the university bookstore. Almost all my classmates had purchases used books at a fraction of the price.

My goal is not to highlight the cost of books in higher education. Instead, my book story highlights the hidden curriculum of academia. To students with parents who had been to college, all the above points may seem obvious. I had no idea. I had no onboarding guide to how to do well in college. There is an extra financial and emotional tax of being a first-generation college student. Fortunately, I was at a community college that was more forgiving, and affordable, than a residential university.

There are so many examples of academia’s hidden curriculum. Without guidance, as an undergraduate, you must learn it is okay, and encouraged, to attend office hours. For many professors, it is reasonable to request extensions or to seek out extra help. Colleges have counselors, career coaches, advisors, and other staff that can help you outside the classroom. The hidden curriculum of academia tends to magnify as you move up. As an undergraduate, I had no sense what is meant to attend graduate school. I didn’t realize that graduate school wasn’t something that required you to pay (at least in STEM) to attend. I didn’t realize you should reach out to potential faculty mentors before you apply to graduate school. I was extremely fortunate to have undergraduate faculty members that helped unpack this hidden curriculum for me. This is certainly not the case for everyone.

As a faculty member, one of the ways I connect with many students is through being a first-generation student. There is a special bond that forms when a first-generation student learns I am also first gen. That student knows that I understand at least part of their pathway and identity. Because of the inequities built into access to education, each first-generation student has less and less potential first-generation mentors. I struggle to find other faculty members, especially at my career stage, that identify as first gen. We know that US faculty members have a parent with a PhD roughly 25 times more often than the general population.

I am proud to be first-generation college student. I love to connect with students and colleagues that are first gen and help others understand the obstacles faced by first-generation students. We have a lot of work to support first gen students more fully. I am up for the challenge. Are you?

QMEL’s own Ana Silverio discusses similar experiences as a first-gen student on a podcast Spotify, Apple Podcasts or join their Pateron.