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The Opportunity of Being First-Gen

Since beginning my blog for Diverse, I have had the fortunate opportunity to talk about my experiences in education at several campuses across the nation. Often, someone has read an essay about my experiences with microagressions or some of my reflection pieces of being a first-generation college student. They reach out to me with kind words of encouragement, thank me for sharing my story and ask if I give talks or workshops about my experiences to help students like me thrive.

There is something about using my personal story to encourage others that is both transformational for the audience and helpful in my development as a scholar. Although it excites me to know that I can help students through my story, the thought of speaking to large audiences or being vulnerable to strangers can be frightening. However, at the end of each of these talks, I have always had a euphoric sense of accomplishment, especially when students speak with me afterward to share how much they enjoyed my time with them.

While the talks and workshops I have done are unique to the needs of the institution, the core of my message has always been changing the way we think about “at-risk” identities such as being a first-generation college student, a low-income student or an underrepresented ethnic minority. Rather than dwell on all the challenges first-generation students encounter in post-secondary contexts, I focus on the assets they bring or acquire during this experience. What tools do these students have because they are first-generation, and how can they use these tools to overcome the challenges they encounter?

As a first-generation college student, here are the tenets I focus on:

Leaving a legacy

When I use the term first-generation college student, I am referring to an individual whose parents or legal guardians have not completed a bachelor’s degree. These students are the first in their immediate family to navigate the experience of a four-year institution, thus their success can have an influence on their peers, family and those who look up to them. The opportunity to leave a legacy can serve as a motivational factor for first-generation students to thrive and serve as a role model to their community.

Recognizing forms of capital not often acknowledged

When reflecting on my undergraduate experience, I often speak about the doubts I had toward my intellect and the fears I had of failure. As I began to understand the importance of social capital, I felt enormous pressure to conform to the institutional culture in order to build the capital I felt many of my peers had already developed before beginning college. In graduate school, I learned about Yosso’s Cultural Wealth Model, where she argues that students of color possess forms of capital not often acknowledged, yet powerful in helping them thrive in education. While first-generation students aren’t necessarily students of color, I feel that the forms of capital she describes, particularly aspirational, navigational and resistance capital, are relevant to the experiences of first-generation students.

I speak about my experiences navigating a university, how my aspirations kept me motivated and how resisting the expectations of me failing were all part of the reasons I was able to succeed.

While I did not necessarily look at these experiences as forms of capital, I have come to realize through my graduate study that I was able to do all of that because of my identities. Having a family that instilled the importance of education from a very young age led me to have aspirations of succeeding in college. Needing to figure out how to apply to college taught me how to seek help and ask the right questions in order to get the information I needed. Knowing that there were people who felt that I was incapable of succeeding just because of my zip code pushed me to not give up. The challenges I had to overcome to start college should have been enough to show me that I was capable of succeeding — I just didn’t know.

I am exceptional, not an exception

As a recipient of scholarships and a student admitted through an opportunity program, I struggled with the stigma that comes from being a first-generation, low-income, underrepresented student — that I got in because of affirmative action. I was embarrassed at first, but what I realize now is that even if there was some truth to that, the fact that I succeeded speaks to how hard-working, persistent and deserving I was of this opportunity. Too often, I felt like I was the exception – the student with subpar SAT scores, the student who never went abroad, etc. It wasn’t until my mentors reminded me of everything I accomplished that I began to recognize and appreciate my growth in college.

Fear and failure is part of our growth

I usually end the workshop asking the audience to anonymously write on index cards the stereotypes or microagressions they have encountered or a fear they have about failure of their academic pursuits. I redistribute the cards and have them speak in smaller groups about these fears and how they would support a friend who is going through whatever is written. After a facilitated discussion, I then read all of the fears that were written. Each time I have done this, I have noticed that many of the fears are the same. I try to demonstrate that they are not alone in their experiences or fears and how that all contributes to their growth.

I do all this because I believe there is incredible power in reframing what we often think prohibits our success. Yes, there will be challenges, and you may experience some unfortunate or hurtful interactions. However, your mere existence in these academic spaces speaks measures to your ability to succeed. Don’t doubt it.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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