We Are First: For Us, I Share My Story

Photo by Daryl Marshke

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 11:28pm

Going to college after high school was not always on my radar. I did not begin to seriously consider college until the middle of my junior year of high school. I did not know much about applying to, paying for or even researching different colleges and the programs they offered. I had no idea about the financial aid process, housing selection or even how I was going to move from my mother’s home to my dormitory. But I had teachers and counselors at Oak Park High School who were invested in me, pushed me and guided me through the initial application process.  

College was not an expectation in my household. My parents did not complete high school, so graduating from high school was already a huge accomplishment. When I made the decision to pursue college and apply to the University of Michigan, the reaction that I received from my family was ambiguous. I could tell that they were happy for me, but, at the same time, I sensed a bit of worry. It meant that I would be unable to enter the workforce and help my mother win bread.

On Sunday, June 24, 2012, I had just moved into my dorm at Mosher-Jordan Hall for the Summer Bridge Program offered through the Comprehensive Studies Program. I had just met my roommate, Kerrell Spivey. My excitement was tempered with the shame that I couldn’t help my mother pay for the bills. Was I really about to spend four years on this campus that I could spend supporting my family? And yet it was for my family that I decided to stay.

Everyone faces obstacles throughout college, but I am not judging hardships. I will say, though, that there are obstacles singular to the experience of first-generation students. Coming to the University was a culture shock for me. I had come from a predominantly Black high school. I had grown up in Black neighborhoods. Being on a campus so white taught me the importance of staying close to the Black community on campus. Staying close to the Black community on campus meant that I would be able to have individuals to relate to and who would understand the obstacles that I face; whereas, individuals of different races would not be able to relate.   

My family, try as they might, could not understand the academic responsibilities that I had, and a rift grew between us. This isolation turned into full depression. I did not visit my home for stretches of months because I felt that I would have to put on a different identity from my campus identity. I had a void in my heart, and I felt that they might see me as better than them, unable to relate. It is a void that first-generation students know.

I had to work part-time during my time at the University. This was not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I was lucky enough to receive a nice financial aid award package from the University, but this was just enough to cover school and housing. I worked because I wanted to save money in case of a familial emergency and to have money for social outings. The social aspect of college is just as important as the academic aspect. I could not take my mother’s credit card and charge whatever I wanted to it. I had to look for work and earn what I wanted. Even then, I hesitated in spending money because at the back of my mind I was readying myself for emergencies at home.

In many cultures, turning 18 years old means that your parents are no longer responsible for you. You have to move out of the family home and pave the way on your own.  After coming to college, my mother had to downsize from her home to a two-bedroom apartment that she could afford for her and my little sisters. My mother did not kick me out. She did what she had to do. I did not see until Spring Break of freshman year that I would have to do the same.

Though I could have tried to find a job that summer at home, I did not want to place a burden on my mother. I found a job working for Wolverine Summer Camps in Ann Arbor and was able to receive free housing and free meals. I was able to forge great connections that summer. This was where I would find one of my best friends, Omar, who was always there when I needed someone the most. Wolverine Summer Camps ended two weeks prior to the start of the fall semester, and I had no choice but to move back to my mother’s home. For two weeks, my things took up her living room. They might have taken it up for four months.

That fall, I more actively sought out different student organizations. After attending so many mass meetings, there was one organization that really resonated with me. After getting involved in the Muslim Students’ Association, I felt as if the void in my heart was finally filling up. Not only was I able to find a network of individuals who shared the same values and beliefs that I did, but I gained lifelong friendships and people whom I consider family. Joining this organization was the first step that I can wholeheartedly say made me feel like I belonged on this campus. From there, I contacted Counseling and Psychological Services, and I would speak with people who approached my mental health issues in different ways. I found that talking problems out with someone whom I could trust helped me overcome my worries and depression and could help me from a religious perspective too.

Admittedly, I did not seek out help from the Comprehensive Studies Program during my freshman year. I thought I could handle the transition on my own. I believed that I did not need any help. Reflecting back, this was probably one of the biggest mistakes I made. I turned down help in the form of tutoring, direct advising and a community of faculty that is invested in helping students succeed.

During my sophomore and junior years of college, I began to use more of the resources that CSP offered and, in turn, I found my academic record and social life improve drastically. As a senior, I was provided with the opportunity to receive a free Kaplan GRE course, paid for by donors of the CSP program. I have been in contact with advisors from the CSP office and have been receiving a lot of advice and support in helping me figure out exactly what I want to do after I receive my bachelor's degree. CSP is a blessing.

Being a Black college student at the University comes with its own obstacles. It has been expressed to me that I am only here because of Affirmative Action. Others believe that I would not have been successful at completing my degree program were I not Black. Despite these comments, I have never been ashamed of being Black at the University.  However, one identity that I was too ashamed to express until senior year was that I am a first-generation student. Students who attend the University have parents who have become doctors, dentists, lawyers.… to mention that my parents had not attained any of that meant that I did not belong at the University.

Being a first-generation student is something that is not talked about and many of us, including myself, tend to put a cloud over that identity and hope it will never come to light. At the beginning of senior year, I sought out the First Generation Student Association at Festifall, and I put my name on the list without any hesitation. The First Generation Student Dinner showed me the importance and beauty of who we were, especially at this University. The dinner was aimed at recognizing and celebrating the achievements and experiences of first-generation college students and their families, sponsored by the First Generation College Students @ Michigan and the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity.

In conversations over dinner, I learned that we, as first-generation students, should be proud of where we are today in spite of the fact that our parents did not attend college. We are setting the tone in our families for generations to come.

Future first-generation Wolverines: My advice to you would be to pursue your passions, know that you are not alone, use resources that are given to you, do not be afraid to ask for help and get involved in an organization that sparks your interest. I understand that identifying as a first-generation student is challenging, and the general student body may not be able to understand what you go through. But we have to be prepared to inform them as best we can by sharing out stories and experiences.

President Mark Schlissel has said that, “At the University of Michigan, our dedication to academic excellence for the public good is inseparable from our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. It is central to our mission as an educational institution to ensure that each member of our community has full opportunity to thrive in our environment, for we believe that diversity is key to individual flourishing, educational excellence and the advancement of knowledge.” If we do not share our first-generation experiences, how can President Schlissel and his team provide proper academic support and encouragement? We are a diverse group of individuals, and there are individuals on our campus who want to help us achieve academic excellence. But we have to be willing to share our stories so that they can be strategic in helping us.

I have been blessed to attend such a prestigious school as the University of Michigan, but as a first-generation student, I will be the first to tell you that this journey was not easy. I thank Dr. Harold Waters and the entire Comprehensive Studies Program staff, Treylawny Boynton and the Department of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, Dr. Lumas Helaire and the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, and all of my professors, GSI’s, employers and friends who made me a graduating senior. For them I share my story.