Faces of an Invisible Identity
What does it mean to be a first generation college student on campus?
Growing up on the west side of Detroit, most of Katie Thomas’ high school classmates didn’t go to college. But the Kinesiology senior was a stellar student: she consistently earned As in her classes, and she enjoyed going to school. So when she applied to college, the University of Michigan seemed like a natural choice.
But Thomas didn’t expect to feel so out of place at the University.
“I knew that coming here was going to be hard,” she said. “But it was really hard. I didn’t make any friends until sophomore year. I was here by myself and didn’t have any friends.”
Thomas is a first-generation college student. Neither of her parents went to college, and Thomas says this identity has had a huge impact on her experience at the University.
“If you have parents who went to college, you have some idea of what to expect,” she said. “I wasn’t aware. Everything I came to here was new to me.”
According to the 2015 enrollment report, about 8.6 percent of current freshmen are first-generation college students. This represents a decline of freshmen from about 13 percent in 2010 and about 11 percent in 2014.
These are the children of food service workers, farmers, mailmen, and electricians. Many are from Michigan, but some travel from distant corners of the country. Many are working-class and low-income, according to experts interviewed for this article, but first-generation students can also come from higher-income families.
First-generation students cross boundaries of race, class, sexuality, and economics. These are their stories.
Thomas went to a charter high school in Dearborn, Mich., near her neighborhood in Detroit. Only one-third of her classmates went to college, she said — but she estimated that half of them have since dropped out. In high school, she studied hard, but good grades came easily to her. In college, it was different.
“I didn’t understand what hard meant,” she said. “Hard to me was an exam that was tough, not that you have an exam, a paper and a project all due within 24 hours. It was physically hard, having to keep up on all of the work, but also mentally hard. I was here all by myself, no friends, no family, and I had to try and do it on my own.”
Most of her friends growing up didn’t even see college as an option, Thomas said.
“A lot of people I went to school with thought more about the quickest way to get money,” she said. “They thought that college was just a distraction, and they could make money by working at one of the plants, or somewhere else. They’d rather get their six-week license to be a CNA (certified nursing assistant) instead of actually going to school to get a degree and be a nurse.”
Public Policy graduate student Cortney Sanders shares many of the same experiences as Thomas. A Black woman from a working-class, low-income neighborhood in Houston, Texas, Sanders was valedictorian of her high school class and went on to UT Austin for her bachelor’s degree.
“I think that’s the journey for most first-gens,” she said. “They come from a neighborhood that’s poverty-stricken, and the high school is filled with people who come from low income or disadvantaged backgrounds, and they are valedictorian, salutatorian, top five percent because of the neighborhood they came from.”
Sanders says she grew up in a safe and friendly neighborhood, but she doesn’t remember any of her friends growing up actually attending college. Attending a university even a few hours away was something unprecedented for her family.
She received a full-ride scholarship to attend UT Austin through a program that offers scholarships to low-income and underrepresented students. Otherwise, attending college might have been unaffordable.
Thomas said money was a concern, too.
“Some people have different ideas about college,” she said. “They think it’s a rip-off, or you’re going to be spending your entire life paying it off. It really depends on what people’s parents told them.”
Though only one of Sanders’ sisters attended a four-year college, her parents were adamant that she and her siblings pursue at least some form of higher education. Thomas said her parents are huge proponents of education, too — they wanted their kids to have better lives. Her parents emphasized academics above everything else.
“They didn’t require us to do a lot of chores and stuff at home because they wanted to make sure that we stayed focused on the main goals: school and academics as well as extracurriculars,” Thomas said. “As long as we did well in school, that was the main focus.”
Sanders said her identities as a Black woman and a first-generation student are very intertwined.
“In my family, I’m three generations away from slavery,” she said. “Generations of my family did not have the option to go to college. Someone else who could be literally sitting next to me in class never had that experience. It’s not just about the choice that was made, but the system that was created for me and my personal identities.”
Thomas is biracial. She’s from an area that’s predominantly Black, so being in a place with so many white people was very different for her.
“Coming here, where the percentage of African-American people is fairly small, was different to me,” she said. “I wasn’t used to being around so many white people, which is kind of crazy.”
Thomas is president of First Generation College Students at Michigan — a group she says has helped her feel welcome at the University.
The group began with a few students in 2008 and has since grown to include a variety of social activities, resources, and events. They host weekly meetings, dinners every semester, and a special graduation ceremony in May.
Sociology lecturer Dwight Lang is one of two advisers of the group. The other is Greg Merrit, a senior associate director for housing. Both were first-generation college students, too. Lang said these students face a certain set of challenges, but they often share common strengths.
“They were the cream of the crop at their high school,” he said. “I think one of their biggest struggles is learning how to ask for help, because they have been self-sustaining for most of high school.”
Lang said being first-gen at the University, especially if a student is also low-income, can be a challenge because students are generally put in an environment completely different from their hometown.
“They are changing, while the rest of their families are oftentimes staying in the lower class,” he said. “You’re going back and forth for the rest of my life. I’ve experienced that, because I was also the first in my family to go to college. I felt like I was always going back and forth between my old world and my new world.”
Lang added that because the first-generation identity is often closely tied to being low-income, this makes the identity different than, say, racial identities.
“If you’re working class, you're going to become middle class when you come here and you graduate,” he said. “If you’re Black, you’re going to be Black until the day you die.”
Students of color have access to resources like the Trotter Multicultural Center and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. But before the First Generation Students at Michigan group was founded in 2008, there wasn’t a place on campus for white first-gens.
“Based on the research I read, many first-gen students end up being loners because they feel so detached on campuses like this,” he said. “I’ve talked to so many first-gens who’ve seriously thought about leaving even into their sophomore year, because they felt so out of place.”
Lang also emphasized that the first-generation identity can transcend boundaries of race, class and more. Some high-income students are the first in their families to go to college, and some low-income students are continuing-generation students, a term describing students whose parents graduated from college.
Take Logan Meyer, a School of Information junior and vice president of First Generation College Students at Michigan. Though he’s a first-generation student, he comes from a well-off family, which has complicated this identity.
“When people are talking about stressors I would never experience, it’s hard to consider the issues I’m having,” he said. “I almost shouldn’t be in this space. Do my problems even compare to those who don’t have the privileges I have?”
Meyer’s mother works for their rural Illinois county, and his father is an electrician. They also partially own a family farming business, and while they aren’t wealthy, they have never struggled with money. Meyer said his first-gen identity is often overlooked.
“I struggled a lot my first year, especially academically,” he said. “I hated it. I felt alone. I came here with no one. No one reached out to me, because I looked like every other continuing-gen student.”
Meyer’s parents pay for his college tuition, but he said doesn’t mean they understood what he was going through. He said there was a huge disconnect between him and his parents, and between him and his friends from home, too. No one understood why he was going to an out-of-state school. Most of his high school classmates thought it was a waste of money.
Thomas and Meyer both said being a part of the student group has helped them realize that there are other people going through similar experiences.
“I realized, I’m not the only one here who feels this way,” Thomas said. “Going to the meetings and realizing that there are other people who are also struggling and have the same issues and concerns as me was also an eye opener. And that’s why I started to feel like I had a place and I belonged.”
Thomas is proud to be a first-generation college student. It’s something with which she identifies very strongly.
“We set trends,” she said. “We are trailblazers. I am a leader and I will be a leader of my family for generations to come, and I don’t think that’s anything that should be looked down upon or seen as a barrier.”
Statistics on first-generation students at the University come from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program entering student survey. It’s a national survey of new full-time undergraduate students that’s administered by the University’s office of student life. Generally, 75 to 80 percent of new students take the survey. Numbers of first generation freshmen have shifted over the past few years but generally hover around 10 percent.
At other top schools, numbers are similar, or higher. At Princeton, 12 percent of students are first-generation college students. At Yale, it’s 14 percent, and 17 percent at Brown. Among the lowest is Washington University at St. Louis, with only 8 percent first-generation students.
Sandra Levitsky, an assistant professor of sociology, is currently leading an effort to aggregate results of several different research studies on first-generation students. Levitsky said first-gen students at the University face particular challenges because there are so few of them.
“If you go to a community college the numbers will be 60, 70, 80 percent first generation students, you don’t have that sense of isolation because there are a huge number of people going through the same experience as you are,” she said. “But when you arrive at an elite university like Michigan, most people aren’t experiencing this sort of trauma of upward mobility. You feel like you are the only one. That sense of isolation makes the experience of college much more difficult.”
For example, the percentage of first-generation students at the University pales in comparison to nearby Eastern Michigan University: in fall 2011, 33 percent of new first year students were the first in their families to attend college.
Levitsky became interested in studying first-gens because her dad was one. Growing up, he talked about his college experience a lot. As a professor, she mentors many first-gen students. She said the challenges that these students encounter are unique.
“All of these challenges make the experience of being here very isolating, very challenging, and very demoralizing,” she said. “And so you see a higher dropout rate, or a just sort of a really hard experience for four years, sometimes five years, where other students are, you know, this is the best time of their life.”
Levitsky emphasized that first-generation students have a lot of unique qualities. They might not have the cultural capital of a continuing generation student, but, she said, they tend to be hard-working and persistent, and they oftentimes have overcome a lot to be where they are.
“If a student arrives at a top research university such as the University of Michigan, coming as the first in their family to go to a four-year college, they have a certain level of grit, skills, persistence usually equated with future leaders,” she said. “These are great students.”
In September 2015, University President Mark Schlissel announced a new initiative to increase diversity on campus. He described ongoing programs to address inclusion and diversity, and programs that will be put in place over the next year to reach out to students with incomplete applications and do more outreach to students who are admitted but not yet enrolled. These initiatives also target students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.
Levitsky hopes to use results of the project to propose programs for first-generation students that may be piloted in the sociology department. As the University becomes increasingly diverse, she says, these programs will become more and more necessary.
“One of the things I find so striking is that in a University like Michigan, even though we know this about the obstacles that first gen students face, we still throw everyone together in the classroom and into the program as if they were starting at an equal starting line,” she said.
“We know that students who are first-gen students enter college less prepared,” she added. “We know that students are often unfamiliar with the culture and the mechanics of college life and they don’t have family members who they can call and ask questions. And we know that they tend to have more complex family structures and that pulls their attention and their time away from their work.”
Sanders didn’t begin identifying as a first-generation student until she arrived at the University in September, but she knows that it has always affected her.
Sanders said being at the University has been different than undergrad because her cohort for her Master’s in Public Policy program is so much smaller — about 100 students per class. She knows her classmates more than she did at the UT Austin. But she said overall, the experience has been less welcoming. For example, when she made an announcement in class one day about an upcoming first-gen meeting, no one seemed to care.
“People would have side conversations with me about it, and some people would ‘come out’ about them being first-gen, but at the moment, it felt like dead silence,” she said. “It was more like, ‘Oh, poor Cortney.’ ”
Similarly, Rackham student Aubrey Schiavone also didn’t identify as first-generation until she got to the University. She’s a student in the joint program between English and education.
Schiavone got her bachelor’s from Mount Saint Mary’s University, a Catholic school in Maryland of just under 2,500 students, and her master’s degree at Salisbury University, a public school also near her hometown of Lanham, Maryland. At both schools, coming from a working class background was pretty normal.
Then, she moved to Ann Arbor.
“It was really hard when I moved here,” she said. “I hated Ann Arbor when I first got here. In my eyes, everyone here was rich and wealthy and I didn’t trust them. Mostly, I had interacted with working class people and middle class people.”
Schiavone got more in touch with her first-generation identity when she found herself unable to afford basic necessities like rent and required books — she had never felt so out of place before. She found the first-generation undergraduate student group during her second year, as well as the Rackham first-generation group.
“It was helpful to know that there are students like me here,” she said. “I was still hard for me to say, I’m first-gen and I’m not fitting in here and I’m not experiencing it well.”
Similarly, Sanders was the first one in her family to leave Houston to attend college and the first one to go out of state, too. Since Sanders began college, two of her cousins and her niece have all enrolled, too — and her niece is out of state, at a school in Ohio. She thinks that she has played a role in making this happen.
“I am a trailblazer,” she said. “I am making lives better because, for the first time, I can give tangible evidence to say, I graduated from here, given my circumstances.”
Schiavone’s dissertation is focused on how being a working class and first-generation student affects how students read, write, and communicate. She remembers one lecture distinctly that made her think a lot about the subject.
“One day in class, we read this article called Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms,” she said. “It was all about how people do reading and writing, literacy that matters, outside of schools, and a lot of it was about working class people who were writing at their kitchen tables, for the jobs or for fun or because they were going back to school.”
Schiavone said this was strikingly familiar to her — her mother is a secretary, and her father is a mailman. Both of them love to read and write in their spare time, but she says that their literacy skills aren’t valued because they didn’t go to college.
“I was so uncomfortable that we were talking about people like me, people like my family,” she said. “There is the assumption that the kind of people we study, the kind of people who are working class and poor, aren’t in the room.”
Schiavone is interviewing fifteen first-generation, working-class undergraduates for her study. She focuses a lot of her interviews on their writing and speaking practices.
“How we communicate with other people has a lot to do with how we are perceived,” she said. “I have this inkling that people who are first-gen and working class write and speak a little bit differently than people who aren’t, and they write and speak in ways that are very much informed by their backgrounds and their upbringings.”
However, Schiavone was quick to emphasize that first-generation students have unique strengths.
“A lot of research done on first-generation students is about the difficulties they face,” she said. “But I also want to ask students about what their strengths are, and what they are doing differently and are celebrating about their experience.”
For example, most of Schiavone’s research participants have one or more jobs on and off campus, something often seen as a weakness because it takes time away from academics. But these students are also gaining from such experiences.
“They are having this professional development while they are in college that other students aren’t getting,” she said. “They’ll say that ‘I work in a cafe, or in an office, and I have to learn how to talk to customers and clients.’ This is an important skill that your career is going to demand of you after college.”
Social Work masters student Christina Castillo has a bit of a different story. Castillo transferred to the University in 2013, when she was 28. At the time, her daughter, Miranda, was five. Castillo is a single mom.
Castillo is from an impoverished neighborhood in San Diego. Her grandparents immigrated from Mexico, and never went to school. Her mom didn’t go to college, either.
Castillo went to community college on and off for several years and also struggled with domestic violence and mental illness. Her daughter was born in 2007; later on, Castillo graduated with her associates degree as a Phi Beta Kappa and with highest honors. As her daughter was nearing kindergarten, Castillo found herself on public assistance, and she knew that she wanted to give her a better life.
“I was applying to jobs that I hated and didn’t want, and I knew there was not going to be a future,” she said. “Mainly, the decision was for my kid. I knew I wanted a better life for her, and I knew whatever she saw, she would repeat in her life. College is important and I wanted her to have that value.”
So in August 2013, Castillo and her daughter got on a train that took them from San Diego to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Chicago. From Chicago, they took a bus to Ann Arbor. It was her first time setting foot in Michigan.
“We came here with two suitcases and that was it,” she said. “(We) moved into the apartment and slept in the clothes we had. We had no blankets, no nothing.”
Now, she says, Miranda is in second grade and constantly tells her that she’s going to go to the University one day, too.
“She was, many times, on campus with me going to classes,” Castillo said. “She just got into kindergarten when I started. It was the hardest thing of my life. I had to take her to my classes sometimes because there wasn’t a babysitter. Sometimes teachers, I think, forget that there are students that are not young and not single and have other obligations.”
Castillo said the experience has been positive for her daughter, too, because the Ann Arbor Public Schools are among the best in the state.
Although Castillo’s experience as a single mom affected her experience at the University, being a first-generation college student has, too.
“When I first came here, I honestly felt like the stupidest person in the world,” she said. “They would be talking about concepts I never heard of. People will say things like, for spring break, I went to Brazil, and I’m like, as a first generation, I’m barely cutting it, eating ramen noodles. You feel like you're getting same education but starting off on a different playing level.”
Schiavone said the biggest message she wants to send to people at the University is that these students need mentors.
“They need mentors who are empathetic, and that can advocate for them, and who they can identify with,” she said.
Schiavone said because being a first-generation student is an often invisible identity, students and faculty should not be afraid to speak up about it. When she finally did, she found three mentors who were also first-gen.
“If you’re a professor on campus here, if you’re a grad student or undergraduate who is first-gen, start saying it,” Schiavone said. “Say it out loud, and celebrate it.”