A First-Generation College Student Experience
There are several ways to define a first-generation college student. A common description of a first-generation college student is someone who is the first in their family to attend college. At its broadest definition, a first-generation student is someone who comes from a family that lacks a college-going tradition. It is important to understand the definition in order to grasp the effect it has on entire communities.
Just like the school-to-prision pipeline it is almost assumed that a person that comes from a less financially stable home (particularly as a person of color) won't have the means of opportunity to attend let alone graduate from a four-year university. Therefore, they often do not get the tools needed to succeed in that world, when the tools needed are often just a little encouragement and belief that you can defy the odds. That in itself will begin a chain reaction that can and will change the trajectory of what we think of today as “the way things are.” Then there’s the element of someone giving up on you because you don’t objectively look like what people “think” of when speaking about educated individuals. I’ve had all these experiences, and have learned/am learning how to overcome them day by day. A human mistake we often make is not acknowledging the good or bad in our lives.
Being accepted into NYU, for graduate school no less, is one of the biggest things I have ever accomplished.
I don’t think I realized that until I got here and also saw how challenging it was going to be. Not only academically, but how the city itself would challenge me as a person.
I was born and raised in Detroit, MI, which many people know for the wrong reasons. Would I call where I come from a tough place? Yes. But I’d also call it beautiful, filled with wonder, and most importantly I’d call it home. It’s the place that helped make me who I am today, some of the most hard and rewarding things I learned there.
In my family, there were a few basic rules: take care of each other, respect your Elders and Love God. My grandparents migrated from the Deep South in the early 1960’s, when many black people looked for hope and refuge in the North because of work opportunities here and the danger that lingered in the age of Jim Crow v. Civil Rights in the southern part of the nation. Their main priority was keeping their family safe. Which is definitely what they did.
Both of my grandfathers worked several jobs including: working for the big three (GM, Ford, Chrysler), serving, valeting, and MANY other odd jobs. As well, they were both drafted and served in the military for a time in their youth. All with sixth grade and high school educations. My grandmothers weren’t much different. They did exactly what they knew how to do - take care of their family. My paternal grandmother also worked for Chrysler for a short time. My maternal grandmother worked within the public school system, while taking care of her six children. Both of them had high school educations, which was rather unheard of, particularly for black women from the south at that time. So I guess my need to beat the odds comes naturally. I share all this to say, school education was never much of a priority in my family. We were often just in a survival mood, but that prepared me for the life I am leading now. Gaining the strength and courage to fight for what I believe in and ACKNOWLEDGE this road is not an easy one but that means it’s just for me, because anything worth having is worth fighting for.
Here are a few ways I’m finding success here at NYU with what I have come to learn about myself as a black, queer, first-generation student at the graduate level.
I often say NYU and New York City are not for the faint of heart. But what can look like a wolf can actually be a sheep when you reach out to touch it. So for me, finding and maintaining peace is paramount.
This city can be a lot of fun but also very chaotic, especially taking it and grad school on at the same time. It was different for me, I couldn’t call my dad and ask how he handled a certain situation, because he’d never been through it. But that's when I started to find places like Chelsea Pier and quiet spots in Central Park.
These places brought me to a center that I needed to function through the week. We as people have a shame around taking breaks, relieving ourselves of the outside world for a moment. If that was something I wasn’t able to do, I’m not sure I’d still be in graduate school. I am a person that loves taking care of other people, but if you can’t be good to yourself how can you be good to anyone else?
Being first generation in a Masters program was one thing. But being the first generation in a while to live anywhere outside of Detroit, was a whole new thing entirely.
Coming to a place where you don’t know a soul or the ones you do, you haven’t spoken to in years, is a new kind of terrifying. Especially coming to New York City! For that reason it is critical for me to find my people.
One of the special things about NYU is that I have met people here I NEVER would have at any other university. Since 40% of the graduate population are international students, I have met amazing people from around the world. I am so grateful for that. It was also important for me to find and know people who looked/were like me, too, though.
Taking into account not only being first generation, but being black and Queer at a Prodominately White Instutition (PWI) there were things I had to become more aware of, the idea of community itself should be built around inclusion, but that doesn’t mean excluding yourself in the process. I have learned it’s okay to want to be around people who have the same experiences as you. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to be around others, it just means you don’t want to have to explain every hardship or transition the way you speak. People often forget that adapting to different worlds can be exhausting. Even if more often than not black people make it look rather effortless. That’s where finding your people, the community you spend the most intimate moments with, is so important.
I encourage any first-gen reading this, don’t be afraid to reach out. Use the resources available to you here at NYU. Social Media has made it a little easier on us.
I’ve been lucky to join, and be Chairperson of, the Steinhardt Black Society (SBS) which has been a brand new way to not only find community, but open it up to others. Know that your village is out there, it’s up to you to find them. And who knows, maybe you’ll find a best friend in the process.
The last piece of the puzzle that I’m still discovering is finding out who I WANT to be. How I want to show up in the world. This is something that will carry me beyond graduate school and should carry all people. I am of the belief we should learn something about ourselves everyday, no matter how small.
As a first-gen student I have found this to be most important in my growth, because the truth is… no one has the answers. This is especially true for students like me. Being a black, gay, first-gen graduate student, it is impairtive I learn to live in my truth so authentically that it encourages all around me to do the same. Living as the human I am has not been easy but if I can change one person's heart I’ve done my work.
There will be times where you feel like things are impossible… that’s normal! We all have imposter syndrome at times, but know that it’s okay to ask for help. Know that you’re the first to do this so you won’t have all the answers, but I guarantee you’ll find the people who do if you ask. It makes you no less of a person, it actually makes you stronger.
Also know it’s okay to not be okay. Be kind to yourself, take a break when needed. You won’t get it all right but you’re not supposed to, you wouldn’t learn that way. Remember, to make it through the storm, you have to learn to dance in the rain. Being a first generation student in any capacity can seem impossible, but as long as you use the tools I’ve presented and take on some of your own you’ll be alright. You must always have faith in people, but more importantly always have faith in yourself.