Being a First-Gen & What That Really Means

Here at the University of Michigan, I’m part of a minority group.

No…It’s not about my gender or my sexual orientation. It’s definitely not about my political affiliations or tax hikes or what I think about food stamps. And it’s not your usual suspects: race and ethnicity (although I am a minority in that realm, too).

I’m a first-generation college student.

It is only now, as a senior at the Michigan, that I am truly beginning to grasp what that term means, understand the challenges that came with it, and (slowly, but surely) embrace it. Money, socioeconomic status, and talking about my family’s past had always felt taboo to me. It was hard to talk to my friends about the small everyday assumptions they made or challenges I was dealing with that didn’t make me feel ashamed, alienated, or different. If there is anyone with a distaste for pity, it was me. I had no outlet of coping with these issues without internalizing fear of judgement or misunderstanding until I heard about First-Gens.

Last semester, I attended my first First-Gen meeting. First-Gens is a student organization at the University of Michigan made up of fellow undergraduates and faculty who were/are all first-generation college students. Together, we express our experiences and our challenges on a campus where we only make up 13% of the student body, where 50%+ of Michigan students come from families that make over $250,000 and where the majority come from 2-parent homes. After my first meeting, I walked away feeling relieved and, most priceless of all, understood.

According to a recent article from USA Today, “Roughly 30% of entering freshmen in the USA are first-generation college students, and 24% — 4.5 million — are both first-gens and low income. Nationally, 89% of low-income first-gens leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.”

Moreover, InsiderHigherEd.com states that “The National Center for Education Statistics suggests that first generation students are at a disadvantage throughout their time at colleges and universities. They enter without as much preparation, they get lower grades, and they are more likely to drop out.”

Our challenges as a minority group are certainly unique and I would argue being a Communication Studies and Chinese dual-concentrator has been particularly difficult and intimidating for me as a First-Gen. I shared how difficult it was to establish myself in the Communications industry that is based almost solely on personal connections. It’s an industry where it is less what you know as opposed to who you know. My family did not necessarily have the same resources/connections as other classmates because of the fact that my parents (immigrants from Vietnam in the late 1970s) did not have college degrees. It’s been frustrating to know that I am entering a cut-throat game in an industry where I’m handicapped.

What this means for First-Gens and for myself is that we have to work harder and study harder to make up for lost ground. I now know that it’s about how you work around your individual challenges that will make you successful and that being a First-Gen is only a disadvantage if you let it be. We do not have to be another “statistic” or prove the trends and characteristics of First-Gens to be right. I was so fortunate to have two older sisters who helped me throughout my entire academic career as well as two of the most caring and self-sacrificing parents in the world. My parents helped me attend a public magnet high school that is one of the best in the state of Michigan and my sisters (alumnae of Northwestern University and the University of Michigan) helped me with college applications, resumes, and cover letters because I had no one else to ask for help. As a family, we worked together to make sure deadlines were met and that my studies leading up to my high school graduation was the best it could be with our resources. I know others may not necessarily have come from two-parents homes or have had siblings who attended college. That makes those first-gen students even more special and admirable for coming as far as they have.

I hope to see in the future that more student organizations like First-Gens appear on college campuses to help address this often overlooked, misunderstood and uniquely vulnerable demographic. Being a First-Gen doesn’t mean you’re “poor”, you’re not “as smart”, or that you can’t succeed – it means you’re hungrier and willing to work harder. By embracing First-Gen status and raising awareness of it can we see more people using it as motivation toward success.

“We may be the first, but we won’t be the last.” – First-Gen’s club motto 

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