Personal Statement: I am a first-generation college student

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
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By Terra Molengraff, Senior Photo Editor
Published September 16, 2012

The first time I visited Ann Arbor I had just put the deposit down on my safety school. The second time was the day I moved in. I came here as a daughter, who in the eyes of my family was spending thousands of dollars to live three hours away in a lifestyle familiar only through the movies they had seen and hearsay from friends of their friends. Once I arrived, I became a student afraid of Football Saturdays and overwhelmed by my peers who seemed to have been prepared for this experience for their whole lives.

I was accepted to the University of Michigan with the precondition that I attend classes from June 20 to August 17 through the University’s Summer Bridge Program. Bypassing this program wasn’t an option, its bolded prerequisite announcing itself on my acceptance letter: you must attend this program for acceptance into the Fall 2010 semester. I must? I was happy to receive an answer from Michigan, but my move-in date was two short weeks away and the idea of moving out, moving in, taking classes and for the first time sharing a 12x13 cubicle-like room was terrifying to me.

For those two weeks, I hoarded people’s advice, desperately trying to become adjusted to the enigma of college. My mother, who never applied to or attended college, repeated, “It’s your decision,” but as June 20 approached I could see the apprehension and tears grow in her eyes. My immediate family’s commentary focused on my age in comparison to my relationship status, the cost of attendance and insisting, “Why can’t you just go to community college? What about that nice boy you’re dating — you’re going to move away from him?” I was overwhelmed by my collection of advice and watched the time before my move-in date dwindle.

The last piece of advice I sought was from a friend, a then incoming junior at the University. He explained that we are all given opportunities, and the opportunity itself is not as important as how we use it. He reiterated that I would be successful in life no matter the college, but the University of Michigan could provide me with not only an education at one of the best universities in the country, but also would help me find communities of people striving to push beyond “what is” to “what could be.” On June 20 I left Muskegon frustrated, pissed off, overwhelmed, but quietly convincing myself it would be worth it.

For eight weeks I found solace in the study rooms of Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall, bonding with fellow Bridge kids in the common misery of summer classes, halfheartedly recalling the opportunity for a better education. My peers were a mixture of first generation, low-income, geographically isolated students for whom the University found it necessary to assume a summer of preparation before freshman year. As a person who fit all of these characteristics, living in conditions that would’ve led some of the best high schools students to drop out, I was the perfect candidate. Upon completion of the program, I was academically ready. But this emphasis skewed my idea of what college would be. I was entirely unprepared for what awaited me moving in to the Mary Markley Residence Hall.

The moment I arrived back from the short break between summer and fall terms, I knew it wasn’t the same Ann Arbor I’d left. The entire city was infested with parents, students and all of their belongings. The students were cordial when their parents were around, yet pushy and disinterested when they weren’t. My first Football Saturday I walked down State Street and wondered if the students on the lawns of the fraternities were the ones pushing beyond “what is” to “what could be.” Sitting alone on the street, I tried to reconcile my previous excitement to be among like-minded peers with the loneliness I felt. My walk around campus soon became a sprint back to my dorm, where I packed a bag, got on a bus and went home to Muskegon.

I adjusted, but it took two years and the process is far from over. I can’t give sugarcoated statements on how it’s OK now when at times it’s not. In this place, I have felt as equally isolated and alone as I have understood and appreciated. The process is continuous.

One of the first assignments of my junior year brought it all together. The sheet attached to the back of the syllabus held a bolded question, “What is college to you?” Two questions were posed in the explanation: What is college supposed to accomplish and what does it actually accomplish?

What is college to me? A series of expectations, oftentimes entirely incorrect. Something that cannot and should not be defined so the only expectation left is that it changes every day. I came to college expecting to be transformed into the model undergrad as easily as my peers and I was frustrated when I didn’t. I have changed, but from my own volition to question my experiences delineating the ideal undergrad. It is from constantly reworking the definition of “what is college?” that I discovered my passion for education reform, focusing on college as a learning experience that pushes for growth and doesn’t allow other people’s experiences define the validity of my own.

Caught in between the expectations from home and school, I spent a majority of my time trying to reconcile the differences. It took my first year here to realize I couldn’t assimilate to either role exactly as it was ascribed. It took the second to understand I shouldn’t have to.

Terra Molengraff is an LSA junior and a senior photo editor for The Michigan Daily.