by Alicia Michelle Rogers, McNair Scholar
What does it mean to be a conquistador? For some, it’s defined as a person who is out to conquer new territory, ruthless and efficient (“Conquistador”). They have their eyes focused, mind sharp, and heart steadfast, ready to face any challenge that may come their way. Some might even say these attributes are characteristic of many first-generation college students—the modern-day conquistadors—eager to conquer new territories and plant their family’s flag in the ground of the educated. In fact, today it is estimated that about 34% of United States students venturing into this unknown land are the first of their families to get a four-year college degree (Pascarella 1). This astonishing percentage of first-generation students entering college exemplifies the ambition and ongoing importance of higher education in this country. However, despite their ambition, setting out for this collegiate conquest and transitioning into its culture and expectations can be difficult for students, especially first-generation students. It is often an uphill battle faced with many obstacles, but those who come out victorious pave the way for the next generation, creating a new legacy for themselves and their families.
Much of the struggle first-generation college students face is embodied in an image created by Allison Latini of the online news website called, The Ithacan (Figure 1 – Latini). This image depicts two first-generation college students buckling under the pressure and weight of their circumstances. As they are crippled by the stress of figuring out how to fund their college education, they are also dealing with the burden of seemingly high expectations from their families to succeed. Furthermore, their affliction is intensified by the disregard of some collegiate administration to the stress and hardship the students are enduring.
From this image, it is evident that the community of first-generation college students is seen having near-insurmountable circumstances. As a first-generation college student, my experiences have echoed this. As a member of a low-income, working-class family, I struggled with finding ways to fund my education. Part of the reason for this was I didn’t know the resources available to me, the opportunities for financial aid, and where to find and apply for it. I felt very much like a lone wolf, wandering around aimlessly in search of answers, only to come up empty-handed. I didn’t know who to ask for help—especially since my parents were clueless, although supportive, in this process. After one year, however, I chose to drop out of college, deeming it something that was obviously not for me.
Nationally, it seems as though the college community has little knowledge about what first-generation students really need, therefore there are few programs on campuses to help them. In addition, it appears as if the pressure being experienced by first-generation students is thought of as the “norm,” or even a right-of-passage for students. “Pressure turns rocks into diamonds,” one administrator is depicted saying (Figure 1: Latini). In other words, the pressure these students face is regarded as somehow being necessary for their success. However, this may not necessarily be true. In fact, the financial burden often results in an increased risk of dropping out of college (Ishitani and DesJardins 189).
Luckily, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is finding ways to provide programs specifically tailored for first-generation college students. One such program is the First Husker program, which was instituted by UNL in Fall 2015 as a part of their first-year experience and transition program. During this time, incoming first-generation freshmen were allowed to “move into their residence halls five days early, meet with a variety of faculty and staff in interactive workshops, receive tips and advice on how to start their college experience, and enjoy social activities with other First Husker peers” (First Husker).
I was fortunate enough to serve on the First-Generation Advisory Council, helping to plan and oversee its development, as well as serve as a First Husker peer mentor during the program. Many of workshops students were given the opportunity to be a part of were: academic success in the large classes, time management, financial literacy, leadership, making vision boards, goal setting, learning campus resources, and networking with other first-year students (First Husker Program). Each student also received a faculty academic success coach, with whom they met throughout their first year of college. It has yet to be determined how this will affect student outcomes in the collegiate environment, but extensive data was gathered and will be combined with the 2016-17 program to evaluate its ability to enhance first-generation student retention at the university. Nevertheless, it’s giving the UNL administration knowledge and resources to guide first-generation college students in the right direction, helping to answer their questions, and setting them up for success.
Family Expectations vs. Internal Expectations
The pressure of financial aid is not the only cause for first-generation students’ knees to buckle. Expectations held by their families put weight on these students as well (Latini, 2016). When discussing family expectations, Barrett stated in her article, “Oftentimes, [first-generation students] may feel that if [they] don’t major in something ‘good enough,’ none of their sacrifices will have been worth it.”
Currently, my mother is working two jobs to help support my education. She has always said she didn’t want money to be the reason we don’t go to college. She is sacrificing so much of her life and, whether she means to or not, it puts more pressure on me to succeed. Yet, if you ask her if what I specifically do matters to her, she would say ‘no.’ What matters to her is that I’m happy—and she tells me that all the time. So, the majority of the pressure I feel is simply because of me not my family. I, like many first-generation students, have this sense of reciprocity–that nothing is given to us for free and somehow we have to find ways to deserve it or pay it back.
Furthermore, I think most students want to make their families proud, but their struggles often make it difficult to fulfill that commitment. And, often, their parents don’t know how to help because they’ve most likely never been to college, or they attempted and failed at it themselves.
Despite these struggles, many students do plug into a support system, as portrayed in a drawing by Cindy Luo of the online news website, Daily Trojan (Figure 2 – Luo). In this image, it appears as though support is a necessary attribute for first-generation students in order be happy, while those without that support are discontent or unhappy. I think it shows that not every first generation student is the same. They don’t have the same backgrounds, experiences, or support systems. For some, being a first-generation college student is a lonely battle; for others, it’s a path full of support and encouragement.
One of the things I found interesting in the picture by Luo, was that of the saddened individual with the “Fight on!” cap. To me, it suggests that the student is struggling, and the facial expression suggests a sort of hopelessness, perhaps defeat. According to Barrett, first-generation students often have feelings of not being good enough. This perfectly depicts the “imposter syndrome,” where they simply don’t feel like they belong. They feel different and less-qualified than everyone else. However, Howard is quick to point out that, “. . . this difference does not mean we are less intelligent, less capable of a high GPA, or less suited for a well-paying job, after graduation” (Howard, as cited in Barrett). She stresses that it’s important for students to remember they were accepted into college because they are adequate and because the university believed they could succeed (Barrett).
If I were to pick a group I most closely related with in this picture, it would be of this individual with the “Fight on!” cap. After dropping out of college after my first year, I felt hopeless and defeated. What I didn’t know was I still had a little fight left in me—like this student, I was looking down instead of looking up to see and embrace the “Fight on!” spirit.
Five years later, I realized this fight within me and returned to college, determined to succeed. Despite being alone, I paved the path for myself and found a way to succeed, using positive affirmations and being my own support system. One such affirmation which motivated me was a quote I memorized by Bruce Barton, “Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared to believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.” I think some first-generation students, like the one in the image, fail to realize that something inside them is superior to any circumstance they may find themselves in. Not having a strong support system may be a struggle, but at some point, students have to take responsibility for their future and determine nothing will stand in the way of reaching their goals.
I think many first-generation college students possess this fervor for success. In Barrett’s article, first-generation students are depicted as being “more passionate than normal students about their education”. Perhaps this is because of their determination to succeed. They know their obstacles may be greater than others, but are willing to work hard to overcome them. Another possible explanation might be students with college-educated parents have more of an expectation to go to college and may see it as something they “have to do,” whereas first-generation college students often don’t have this expectation from their parents. Consequently, they may view going to college as “going above and beyond” and see it as something they “get to do.” The difference in expectation could change the perspective by which the different students view education.
For many, being a first-generation college student is a source of pride. They are the first in their family—the first generation—to get a 4-year college degree. Many have to face seemingly insurmountable circumstances, while overcoming numerous obstacles, making a college education a difficult feat to conquer. When a first-generation student graduates, they don’t just accomplish something for themselves, they change the course of their family history. They are the modern-day conquistadors.
“First Husker Program.” First-Year Experience & Transition Programs. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 June 2016. <http://success.unl.edu/first-husker>.
Ishitani, Terry T. and Stephen L. DesJardins. “A Longitudinal Investigation of Dropout from College in the United States.” The Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 4.2 (2002): 173-201. Web. 02 June 2016.
Pascarella, Ernest T., Christopher T. Pierson, Gregory C. Wolniak, and Patrick T. Terenzini. “First-Generation College Students: Additional Evidence on College Experiences and Outcomes.” The Journal of Higher Education 75.3 (2004): 249-84. JSTOR. Web. 02 June 2016.