Dear Mom and Dad,
Thank you. Thank you for sacrificing your time, energy, and less than dispensable income, to ensure that I would be the first person in our family to go to college.
As a senior in high school, I had no idea what I was doing when I started my college search. I knew I wanted to major in psychology so I could “help people” but I had no idea the difference between public and private, loans versus grants, and what a liberal arts education entailed. And neither did you. You did your best to help, but I now recognize that you couldn’t help; not because you didn’t want to but simply because you did know how.
Despite not knowing how, you helped me get to Heidelberg University. You asked me, “Why Heidelberg?” Frankly, I didn’t have an answer. Other students may credit Heidelberg’s wonderful small, private, liberal arts education. Looking back, I now know I picked Heidelberg because they sent me lots of mail and called me at least once a week. In my naïve mind I thought, “Wow! They must really want me to come here!” This is one of many first generation college student problems I have encountered over the years.
I will never forget when you took me for my first campus visit (why didn’t we visit before I deposited – again, first gen problems) and we saw a cow farm near campus. Growing up outside of Cleveland, I never imagined I would live near cornfields and cow farms. Dad, you jokingly said, “Dana, you can get a job milking cows!” And I cried and thought to myself, “Why did I pick a school in the middle of nowhere?” Despite the location, I thrived at Heidelberg. I excelled academically, participated in and led student organizations, conducted research, and engaged in community service.
I successfully graduated from Heidelberg on Mother’s Day in 2006. Not only was this a gift for me, but also for you, my parents. What an experience to have on Mother’s Day - watching your first child complete college. Our University President even mentioned me in his graduation speech - it must have been an amazing feeling! Nationally, the graduation rate for low-income, first-generation students in bachelor’s programs is about 11% (Foster, 2015). Thank you, Mom and Dad, for helping me be part of that 11%.
After Heidelberg, I went to a large public university to pursue a master’s/PhD in experimental child psychology. “Why?” you asked. Not because this was my passion or purpose. The answer: because they were the only program giving me full tuition remission (again, first gen problems). I did not pick the school with the best fit - I chose the program that was free (so you did not have to pay any more of your hard earned money for me to continue my education).
Eventually, I realized that I didn’t want to “help people” by sitting at a desk 60+ hours a week running analyses. At first I thought my failed PhD attempt was because I wasn’t smart enough. But what it came down to was a first gen college student not having the confidence and preparedness to handle such a rigorous academic program.
This moment for me was utterly earth shattering. I had never quit anything in my life, let alone my education. I was afraid to go home and tell you I quit - I will never forget that day. You could have been mad, but instead you supported me, knowing that I was still going to go out there in the world and “help people.” All you said was, “Ok – now what?”
And thanks to you, Mom and Dad, I get to help people every day.
After my PhD attempt, I attended the Ohio State University where I earned my master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs. You didn’t understand my job or my education. You asked questions like, “So, you’re a professor?” or “Are you an RA?” At first, I didn’t understand why you didn’t understand. First gen problems – without attending college, how could you fully understand what I did if I didn’t taking the time to fully explain!
"First-generation students have it particularly tough because they’re wrestling with their identities, like all students, while simultaneously trying to transcend their socioeconomic backgrounds" (Foster, 2015).
I did not feel the impact of my first generation college student identity until I entered the field of Student Affairs. It wasn’t until I became a Student Affairs professional that I started to observe the extreme privilege and wealth that can be afforded to some students and their families. My current institution has only been tracking first-gen demographics for the past four years. While we have programs in place for our students, few institutions are providing opportunities for the nearly 4.5 million first generation students in our colleges and universities (Mangan, 2015). Doubly disadvantaged students, those who did not attend elite, prep high schools and are also first gen, are struggling even more (Foster, 2015).
When you moved me into my first-year residence hall, hugged me, and drove away, I never imagined that I would get to help people by working at a university. Your encouragement, guidance, and support were unwavering – even when I made mistakes and missteps. Today, I get to help students develop their leadership skills and find their passions. My ability to help students is due in large part for the encouragement you provided to me to find my passion and not give up.
So thank you, Mom and Dad, from me, and all of the amazing students I get to help on a daily basis.
Foster, B. L. (2015, April 9). What is it like to be poor at an Ivy League school? The Boston Globe. Retrieved from
Mangan, K. (2015, May 18). The challenge of the first-generation student. The Chronicle of Higher
Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/The-Challenge-of-the/230137/?cid=wb&utm_source=wb&utm_medium=en
Dana Carnes is the Associate Director of the Center for Leadership at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina.