I am 17 years old. I have left Pennsylvania six times in my life. My family epitomizes Billy Joel’s song “Allentown,” my hometown. Mack Trucks, Bethlehem Steel and agriculture rule my world. I am a smart kid, a hard worker, a smart aleck. I have just won the Wendy’s Restaurant scholarship along with a few other recognitions for my hard work and service. I look like I have it all together.
When I step onto Penn State’s campus for the first time, I quickly see I have no idea what is going on. I am the first child on either side of my family to attend college. Ever. I don’t know what to take to class the first day, so I pack my worn red Jansport bag with ALL of my books for my classes that day—including the 10 paperbacks I bought with my Wendy’s scholarship for my first English literature course. Laden by the weight, I bounce up the hill to my 8 a.m. class. And then it starts to pour. All day.
By the time I return to my dorm that afternoon, my books are soaked. Ruined. But I cannot afford to buy a new set. The rest of the semester, I read from warped pages, the smell of the first day following me in every assignment. I feel really dumb—I didn’t need a single book that day. I was afraid to be unprepared and look like an imposter.
I still haven’t gotten over those fears, even though I now have a Ph.D. Because first-generation college students have little understanding of the new world they are entering, they can spend their entire time in higher ed looking over their shoulders, wondering what they are doing wrong, wondering if they are about to be told they do not belong. About a third of all students entering college today are first-generation college students, and of that population, a significant percentage is Hispanic and African American. I tell my students the story about my uninformed self as an invitation to my first-gen students to talk with me about college in general. I try to share with them the advice I wish someone had given me when I was in high school. Here is what I wish I had known.
Ask questions. I was so afraid to ask questions—of friends, of professors, of anyone! I didn’t want to look dumb. I already felt like everyone had a vocabulary to which I didn’t have access. I have since learned about “speaking university,” a phenomenon in which students mimic vocabulary, even when they don’t know what it means.
Visit your professors. I am saddened when I think about all of my missed opportunities for mentoring. Now that I am a professor, I see how my students learn so much from conversations outside the classroom. I didn’t know the importance of a network because I had never lived in a world in which it mattered professionally. Now I work hard to invite students into my office when I see they might be struggling or need an extra nudge—or a connection to an internship, a referral to another professor or a letter of recommendation they might not even know they need.
Attend events. This lesson I learned quickly on my own. But I see students who have very real financial struggles that prevent them from connecting with the campus at talks, lectures and film screenings. Many of my first-gen students (and many others) are trying to find a balance between working and studying, between college obligations and family responsibilities. But expanding your mind at such campus events gives you great fodder down the road when you are being interviewed or otherwise engaging with work communities.
Find your wolf pack. After being totally plugged into my high school community, I struggled at a place as large as Penn State. I was miserable there—until I found my wolf pack. I didn’t struggle academically, but emotionally I felt out of place, especially on football weekends! Once I figured out what I cared about, I started joining clubs and doing work that meant something to me.
Follow your passion—to a degree, at first. First-gen students are carrying the weight of their entire families with them to campus. The pressure to make the degree “worth it” is something I hear my first-gen students explain repeatedly. For them, it is a great risk to take a class that doesn’t feel “practical.” I show students how to fit a minor into their major or find a way to make a class fit into a program. I don’t push students to “follow their passions” because I know there are significant material and financial concerns connected to such advice. Instead, I show them that their passions can lead to careers as well.
Connect with other first-gen students. During my college years, when people talked about their parents, they talked about teachers, lawyers and businesspeople. I wasn’t ashamed of where I came from; I just didn’t know how it fit into the puzzle of higher education. Colleges are doing a much better job with connecting first-gen students on campuses these days. Before they get to college and while they’re there, those of us who educate these students can show them the resources available to them on campus. Perhaps all students need to know is that there is a name for what they are and that there are online communities to support them.
I wish I could pull my 17-year-old self aside and give her some of my hard-won advice. I could tell her I would eventually figure out that big world of higher education—and that I would even teach within it someday, something I never could have imagined as a young woman.
I encourage all of us in secondary and higher education to reach out to our first-gen students—or prospective first-gen students—and support them. Sometimes, a friendly hello or five-minute conversation while heading across campus is enough to show a first-gen student that they matter and can succeed.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.