Several years ago as a new student, I was blessed with an “aha” moment in recognizing an extension of my personal identity. For me, the feeling of incorporating terms and labels that I was previously oblivious to, but click immediately upon hearing them, is unparalleled. A series of extensive personal information forms, frequent engagement with an affinity group, or another spontaneous event can lead to reconsidering and discovering terminology that helps us better express the identities that encompass our individual being.
One such identity that isn’t immediately apparent for select individuals, including myself, is their first-generation college student status. First-gens are typically known as students who are the first in their families to attend college. The criteria for some definitions vary according to differences in where one’s parent or guardian received their degree or the level of education obtained, like an associates degree or a bachelor’s degree. The University of Michigan’s official definition of first-generation college student — which coincides with the definition that most colleges have set forth — is a student whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree. On the other hand, low-income college students are generally defined according to Pell Grant status, but similar definitions are also based on assets and institution-specific income thresholds.
First-gen students are likely to give a variety of answers when asked about when they first became cognizant of their status. Some were aware of the delineation of their identities prior to applying to colleges, whereas others were informed in the midst of their higher education journey. FAFSA applications, discussions with parents about the future and a sense of bewilderment in a new environment can all serve as factors that lead to this revelation about how their identity is perceived within institutions.
As I was transferring from my previous university, I was able to form a foundational set of criteria that I expected from my institutions to facilitate a true sense of community for first-generation students. Among other things, I primarily sought a collegiate institution with consistent, dedicated support and outreach towards first-gens. Upon googling “umich first gens,” I found the University of Michigan to be much more robust compared to other schools in terms of first-gen specific resources, support and recognition. The First-Gen Gateway and the Go Blue Guarantee were several notable markers of the university’s commitment and ongoing progress.
As I became more immersed in the first-gen landscape, one term that sprang up from time to time was FGLI. FGLI stands for “first-generation, low-income” and is generally pronounced as either “fly,” “figly,” or the letters enunciated individually. FGLI serves as an umbrella term that not only achieves brevity in the context of advocacy and discourse, but also serves as a point of reference for individuals who identify as part of this community. The term itself may seem trivial, but having a qualitative phrase to affiliate with is of paramount importance, especially since first-gen and low-income identities are often left unrecognized or overlooked entirely. Although many, including myself, might take the University’s frequent advertising efforts for granted, the absence of any effort is abysmal and unfortunately the norm at other collegiate institutions. Even a granular “1ST GEN” sticker plastered onto a laptop is a momentous milestone and sign of progress. While the visibility and recognition of FGLI students through the perfunctory use and presence of terms like FGLI, first-gens and low-income makes me feel seen, it is undeniably still a first step.
The adoption of these terms is by no means an indicator that all is well. The University has made considerable progress in terms of accommodating FGLI students, but there is still room for improvement. Although there are university-wide resources and support, there are only a few schools within the institution that offer tailored FGLI-specific resources. For example, the College of Engineering maintains its own dedicated set of resources for its FGLI students, such as the First Generation Engineers (1st Gen Engin) club. These tailored resources — or the absence of them — can make or break a FGLI student’s experience within their respective school.
Even the existence of the FGLI identifier cannot resolve some discrepancies on its own such as the sparse FGLI representation and involvement in professional and selective organizations. Moreover, some students may choose not to self-identify as FGLI or may feel that other components of their identity are of greater salience to them, leading them to place the FGLI term and resources on their periphery. All of these factors and more contribute to a different experience for each FGLI student.
Although the FGLI term itself seems minor, and as though it can be conveniently ignored outside of academia, it is significant because the labels we assign ourselves — both individually and collectively — carry weight and serve as vehicles for discourse. Embedded within the FGLI term is a recognition of our social class and pursuit of upward mobility. As FGLI evolves, so will the definitions of first-gen and low-income. How we define ourselves will continue to evolve.
As I integrated these terms into my mental repository, it became easier to convey and understand several things that were previously difficult to express. One such element of college life that I always found off-putting is the Michigan food spending culture on campus. Though it may seem anodyne, observing hordes of students with cups of coffee and takeout in hand serves as a reminder that I could be socially excluded simply because eating out several times or even once a week is not financially feasible. While some affluent students casually gallivant around the world and partake in trips — such as for Greek life, professional organizations, and spring break — FGLI students have meandered arduous distances within their mind over the day-to-day challenges, responsibilities and tribulations they face.
There are several thousand first-gens enrolled at the University. In an alternate world without this visible first-gen outreach and presence, an exacerbated sense of isolation, detachment and feeling remotely different from everyone — including family and peers — may be more likely to occur. My prior involvement with the First-Generation College Students (FGCS) club, past multiple visits to the First-Gen Gateway, and countless other interactions gradually coalesced and helped ameliorate what I previously viewed as an esoteric endeavor, otherwise known as going to college. Terms like FGLI are merely tools, but a patchwork of student advocates, allies and university support can spearhead initiatives to foster a sense of belonging, cohesion and even change.
Undeniably, FGLI, first-gens and low-income are all nascent terms. Even a decade ago, there was far more stigma and hesitancy among people to address and recognize these terms and identities. Fortunately, the courage of student advocates and allies has helped, although I wonder how communities will interpret these terms in the future.
For example, within the span of a few years, I have already witnessed the evolution of another nascent identity term: Latinx. I first hazily heard of the term Latinx in an academic setting several years ago and have since observed frequent usage on campus. There has been a flurry of recent coverage documenting the renewed debates surrounding the Latinx term, with the core issue being the nominal adoption and usage rates among the overwhelming majority of working class and primarily Spanish-speaking communities it is intended to represent and empower. As evidenced by the Latinx controversy, the FGLI term, alongside other FGLI-adjacent terms, will inevitably be scrutinized and argued upon, which will ultimately coincide with the ongoing internal deliberations each of us have over the years on how to best define ourselves.
Over time, the imagery of FGLI will shift as well. A considerable number of first-gens and/or low-income students are the children of parents and guardians employed in jobs perceived as menial. Menial jobs as a concept will always exist, but what constitutes menial jobs will change alongside the advent of new technologies and systems. Sometime in the future, some number of FGLI students will be the children of gig economy workers — food delivery drivers, rideshare drivers — and may be evaluated on other dimensions like virtual or crypto assets. Despite the considerable overlap between first-gen and low-income student experiences, it is important to note that not all first-gens are low-income students, and not all low-income students are first-gens. And as other stakeholders — like corporations and nonprofits — develop specific programs and resources that cater to first-gen and/or low-income students, the varying definitions and interpretations of FGLI will be of heightened importance. The definitions and labels of FGLI, first-gens, and low-income will inevitably evolve, but the core characteristics remain. Grit, resilience and adaptability are some of the core characteristics instilled within trailblazers like ourselves. This essence enables us to be tenacious in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty, and allows us to forge ahead despite being at siege on multiple fronts at various times.
Whether it’s in a sociology class or through personal interactions, many of us recognize the terms we utilize are imperfect, but have great utility in helping to define ourselves. They enter our lexicon and subsequently become another piece of our identity. Roughly five years ago, I had no conception or knowledge of several terms — working class, Latinx, first-gen — yet they have proved to be constructive in helping me articulate my identity and story.
We may be the first, but we won’t be the last.
MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org