Getting In and Fitting In: First-Generation Students in Graduate School

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As a college education becomes more financially feasible and socially expected for a greater portion of the population, historically disadvantaged students and those from working class families are entering colleges and universities at a higher rate than prior decades. Though school officials offer varying definitions of what it means to be a first-generation student, many agree that first-generation students tend to feel unprepared and under-supported for the many challenges that college entails. As such, universities, such as our own, are starting to implement more programs specifically designed to recruit, support, and retain first-generation students, by building community, offering practical studying and time management advice, and helping students stay on track with their academic and personal goals.

the struggle

Admittedly, my alma mater did not have a LUSSI (Lehigh University Summer Scholars Institute) program, as Lehigh students do. In fact, I was not aware that such programs existed, much less that I might have benefited from knowing that I was not alone, as I struggled to not only adapt to college, but also, to learn the inner mechanisms of higher education that other students seemed to anticipate. Although it sounds unfathomable to me now, it wasn’t really that I started applying for graduate schools and researching stipends that I realized what being a first-generation student actually meant to me.

Neither of my parents were able to go to college. They are of a generation that found work which required either on the job technical training or experience, without having to have specific degrees. Although I think they hoped for and most likely expected my siblings and me to go to college, it was with the understanding that they would not be able to pay for our tuition bills. Certainly, they helped where they could, and we cobbled together our tuition dollars with a combination of scholarships, grants, and loans. Thanks to generous financial aid packages, I was only able to attend the private liberal arts school of my choice. Even then, I knew I would be responsible for a certain amount of debt, but that seemed worth it at the time (mainly because I was ignorant of how interest accrues over time).

Stack of GRE books

Four years later, I learned that applying to graduate school is expensive—really expensive. Between taking my general GREs, my GRE subject tests, and sending in various application fees, my total bill ran at about $1,000. My advisors suggested that applying to graduate school was an investment, and I would see that return on my investment when I got into a program. What they did not tell me was how I was supposed to come up with that $1,000 that neither I, nor my family, could afford to pay.

In my research, I realized that some universities would allow me to apply for application fee waivers, if I could demonstrate financial need. Great! All I had to do was ask a financial aid officer to write me a letter. It wasn’t until I read the letter that I fully realized the stigma that came along with being a first-generation student from a financially needy background. In short, the letter said something along the lines of, “As you can see, Sarah’s expected family contribution is $0, the lowest bracket option.” When I told my advisor about this letter, he was worried that it might reflect poorly on me as a potential candidate. He reasoned that if universities thought I wouldn’t be able to pay for the application fee, then I certainly could not afford to fund my graduate education, should I get accepted to a program that didn’t provide adequate funding. I hadn’t realized I needed to be any more explicit with him: I would only be attending graduate school if I was accepted to a fully-funded program. It is perhaps no surprise then, that when I did receive my acceptance letter with tuition remission and a generous stipend from Lehigh, I screamed, jumped up and down, and promptly called my mom. Once I got in, I thought, I would be able to prove myself. I would scrimp and save to pay for housing and my other bills. Essentially, I thought my main troubles were over. I was a diligent and successful undergraduate student, so I thought my skills would readily transfer to a graduate school environment. But in some cases, I was vastly mistaken. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my first generation status impacted me in a very real way.

Having now spent several years in graduate school, I have gathered a list of behaviors, as well as more proactive alternatives, that I saw in myself, in the hopes that I might be able to help my fellow first-geners who may face similar issues:

Linderman Library

Recruitment Day: I’ve come to realize that recruitment day is like the graduate school equivalent of window shopping. Students arrive, ready to be welcomed and hopefully dazzled. Presumably, if they can afford to, they visit all of the institutions to which they have been accepted before making a sound, financially and academically feasible decision. For first-geners who are able to attend recruitment day activities, recruitment day isn’t about a university impressing us, it’s about us impressing them.

More prepared future graduate students might also take advantage of the networking potential of recruitment day, meeting with their future advisor and professors to suss out their schedules, discuss their research interests, form early connections, and generally making a good impression. All of which I know now, four years into the program.

When our former graduate student advisor asked me if I would like to schedule any meetings with faculty on the day of my campus visit, I was genuinely perplexed. Why would they want to take time out of their busy schedules to meet with me? I thought. I haven’t even done anything notable yet! Surely, they’ll get to know me when they teach me? I said something to the effect of the fact that I would be happy to meet anyone who happened to be around, but I didn’t see the need to schedule formal meetings. So what happened? No meetings. I realize now that I simply did not feel entitled enough to their time to ask for those meetings, and as a result, I cultivated relationships with my professors and my future committee members much later than I otherwise would have.

My advice to incoming first-generation students is to heavily research faculty whose work they find interesting ask for these brief meetings when possible. They are not doing you a huge favor, as you might feel. In fact, they are doing their jobs, which is to help guide you through your questions and burgeoning research interests from day one.

Imposter syndrome: Another major issue that historically disadvantaged students face is Imposter syndrome, a condition that particularly affects women. They are afraid that, at any moment, they will be exposed as an academic sham, someone who somehow managed to trick their way into a graduate program without actually having the intellectual hutzpah to be there. I suspect this feeling is almost symptomatic of being a first-generation student. During my first semester, it felt like there was no end to the amount of witty banter, esoteric references, and academic jargon that I did not understand. For example, I wondered “Do you pronounce the ‘t’ in Foucault?” and “What happened to Deleuze’s first 999 plateaus?” I even started taking notes in my margins of my books where I simply listed definitions for words like “epistemology” and “ontology”—words that I had never heard before and was expected to not only know, but to be able to use with authority.

picture of seminar

Closely related to imposter syndrome is the fear of sounding stupid. I knew that I needed to talk to fully engage with my classes, and I had potentially smart things to say. I did not always know how to phrase those thoughts, however. I made a deal with myself: I promised myself that I would say something at least once in the classes where I felt most out of my league (and more in classes where I felt comfortable). Usually, I spent the first half of the class processing what everyone else had said and forming coherent sentences and then testing them out in my brain, but damn it, I talked. And eventually I felt a lot more adept at handling in-class discussions and eventually got to the point where I felt that I, too, had a valuable perspective to add to the class.

I do not have a magic panacea for this anxiety, except to remind you that of all of the applicants, you were accepted! If the graduate committee doubted your intellectual prowess, you likely would not have even gotten in. So celebrate the fact that are good enough and smart enough and ready enough to inhabit that space fully. If you need to practice what you would like to discuss in class, you might consider meeting in a small group with friends prior to a class session, so you can test out your ideas in a more comfortable and supportive environment. I also like to write thorough notes or questions for myself ahead of time, lest I lose my train of thought.

Asking for help: In the beginning of my graduate school career, I had trouble even forming what exactly I needed help with, much less, knowing whom to ask for help. Over time, I learned that letting someone know that you are struggling signifies two things: one, that you have the self-efficacy to recognize and advocate for your own needs, and two, you remind your fellow first-generation students that none of you are alone in the struggle.

Moreover, asking for help (such as additional meetings with your professors to discuss class content or more tailored feedback on your writing) is not a sign of vulnerability, it is a sign that you are mature enough to know that you would benefit from further guidance. Reaching out to fellow graduate students, faculty, and staff in other departments can also help build a coalition of support, by reminding yourself that boundaries are often artificial, and communities can extend far beyond designated classroom spaces.

Sisyphus pushing up a budget

Comme Sisyphe by Honoré Daumier

Budgeting: Not just for finances anymore. Budgeting your time, energy, and commitment to various talks and projects is an invaluable skill that I learned later in my graduate school career. At the beginning of my graduate school experience, I was eager to say “yes” to everything, both because I felt I had so much to learn and I wanted to make a good impression on my peers and professors. Moreover, I wanted to help others plans their discussions, reading groups, and extracurricular projects so that the burden would not fall on a handful of individuals. As a result, I often found myself overburdened and under-energized, an issue that I did not face head on until it came time to plan for my comprehensive exams.

As exciting as it is to be a part of a community of learning, some strategic planning early on can help us to focus our energies on the classes, lectures, grants, and research projects, etc. that will be the most exciting and enhancing for us to work on, while appreciating the fact that others will be able to benefit from the other opportunities that we chose not to pursue. Not everyone can do everything, but we can learn to be mindful of finding ways to support others in their work while reserving the bulk of our time and energy for the work that is most important and beneficial to us. One of my professors also suggested focusing on the top 2-3 areas that mean the most to my personal development, and allowing myself to delve deeply into these interests, rather than trying to do too many projects half-heartedly.

Overall, the most important lesson that I learned is to trust in myself and the validity of my experiences. Although being a first-generation college, and later, graduate student has come with many challenges, it has also taught me the importance of bringing those perspectives into my formal coursework and informal discussions with my colleagues. For my fellow first-geners, I hope you find this information useful and continue to add to it with your own lessons learned.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Welcome to Lehigh English & Drown Unbound! | Drown Unbound

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