I’m proud to be featured in yesterday’s #FirstGenFriday on UC Riverside’s social media pages. First-generation college students face significant difficulties in college. Just because you got into college doesn’t mean you know how to navigate the system. First-gen students are highly resilient and learn to figure it out eventually. But it can be frustrating and can delay graduation and you can miss a lot of opportunities along the way. I am quoted in the UCR post talking about volunteering in labs while in college. I didn’t know that was something that people did until I started grad school! There’s a lot of things that I found out too late – including scholarships that I would’ve qualified for. Now that I teach and supervise undergraduates, I try to tell them about every opportunity that I come across. I also make sure they know that they can ask me about anything without fear of feeling stupid. There’s a lot of things that we’re *supposed* to know but we just don’t. First-gen students need to know that there is someone with an open door who won’t judge them for not knowing all the unwritten rules.
It took me 7 years to finish my B.A. after I graduated from high school. My senior year of high school I lived in Germany as an exchange student. I had planned to apply to college while I was there, but it was too confusing, and I was too far away. So when I got back to Michigan, I started working full-time. I don’t even think I applied to universities that year. I just decided to enroll at Grand Rapids Community College the following fall. I was intimidated by the sticker price of attending a university. What I didn’t know then was that I probably could’ve gotten a full scholarship with my grades and ACT score. While attending GRCC, I worked full-time to support myself (I was living on my own), and I paid my tuition in full every semester. One semester I didn’t have the money saved up to pay the tuition. Rather than borrow money, I just took the semester off and resumed the following semester.
After graduation, I decided to move to Miami. I wanted to move abroad again so I could learn Spanish, but it was too expensive. I had heard that Spanish was so prevalent in Miami that it was like living in another country, so I moved there. I was accepted into Florida International University, but I couldn’t justify paying the out-of-state tuition price, which was almost 4x the in-state tuition price (about $14,000 compared to $4,000). So I waited a year to resume school so that I could claim Florida residency. I finally finished 2 1/2 years later. In my last year of school, I was encouraged by one of my professors to consider going to graduate school. I had no idea what graduate school involved, but I had heard it was expensive, and therefore concluded it was not for me. I looked into it and realized that a Ph.D. was a great fit for my ambitions – I wanted a career where I would never stop learning, and the rigor of science and research always appealed to me. I always enjoyed academics and in-depth study, so years of intensive study did not seem intimidating. I wondered why I didn’t know about this before… I think it was because I didn’t know anyone who had gotten a Ph.D., besides my professors, who I considered to occupy a social level wholly different from my own.
It took me 3 more years after graduating from FIU to apply for graduate schools. I wanted to be 100% sure of my decision and of the programs I would want to join. And it was a period of financial and emotional instability as I went through a drawn-out break-up with a long-term partner. I ended up applying to only three programs, and my ideas about what I wanted to study in grad school had evolved from studying linguistics to the science of how the brain uses language. I only got into one of the three programs, at the City University of New York, which luckily was my first choice. I was thrilled that I would get to work with Loraine Obler and Valerie Shafer, whose work I had read, and to join a program with a strong focus on bilingualism.
The year after I joined the program, some of the faculty had a brief chat in the hallway about a couple of the applicants, and I happened to be there. One of them said, “That one says he wants to work with me, but he hasn’t reached out to me yet. Everyone knows that you need to contact the faculty person during the application process.” I interjected, “I didn’t know that. And I didn’t contact my future faculty mentors.” This was just one example of an expectation that some people, in particular first-generation college students, are not aware of. They may read all the documents carefully, submit everything on time, follow all the rules, demonstrate good grades, excellent GRE scores, but in the end they may be cut out of the process because they didn’t know to email someone. Or they may not have established a relationship with their undergraduate professors and thus have weaker letters of recommendation. Or they may not have gotten research experience as an undergraduate, because they didn’t know they could or should, and this may be interpreted as lack of initiative, or worse, of laziness.
I hope sharing my experience encourages other first-generation students to persist in their dreams. It may take time (I got my Ph.D. when I was 34), it may seem daunting at first, but it can be done. And there are people who want to help you. I thought I had to do it all on my own, make my own way. I thought asking for help was a weakness, a sign that I shouldn’t be there at all. But now my perspective is completely different. I am thrilled when I am asked to help my students get a job, apply for grad school, design a research project, apply for a scholarship. I love answering questions about grad school options, career options, what skills and training are needed, whether to go abroad, how to pay for more schooling. I offer everything I’ve learned over the years for free. Just ask.
I also hope that I can give some perspective to faculty members, staff, and students at higher-ed institutions about the first-generation experience. My path may be unique, but a lot of the struggles and insecurities are shared by many first-generation students. The biggest frustration is not even knowing what you don’t know. Not knowing what questions to ask. Not knowing how to behave. Feeling stupid when someone says “Everyone knows that.” Be explicit and transparent. Level the playing field. Don’t make assumptions. Ask students what they’re dealing with and how you can help. I’ll never forget in my first semester in grad school when my new advisor, Loraine Obler, asked me what I was most worried about, entering the grad program. “I don’t know how this whole thing works.” I was in completely unknown territory and scared that I would mess up, reveal my ignorance about higher ed, realize that I wasn’t supposed to be there after all. “Be explicit about everything,” I said. And she was, for 5 more years, asking what I needed to succeed and supporting me the whole way.
The picture I’m holding shows me and my father right before I graduated from Grand Rapids Community College in 2004. I have a cast on my hand because of a bad car accident I was in a couple weeks earlier that totaled my car but left me with only a small fracture in the left hand.