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Guilt; The First-Gen Struggle

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
July 8, 2015 Meghan Luzader

Last month the Washington Post highlighted an article from PostEverything about the struggles of first-generation college students; specifically, the guilt faced by leading a “double life.”  As someone who is a first-gen, the frustrating piece for me is how this continues into adulthood.  As a college student, it was easier for me to be one person at school and another when I went home – the balance was exhausting at times, but still easier to manage.  As I moved into a Master’s program, the double life became far more challenging.  More often than before I would be met with comments about how I thought I was smarter because I had graduated college.  For quite some time after I brought my partner home to meet my family, they were met with the nickname “College Boy,” which I believe to at least be partially in jest, but partially not.  Not to mention when my social justice activism became much more apparent – including having conversations with my family members about offensive language – the divide became harder to manage.

I very vividly remember a faculty member telling me in my first semester of my Higher Education Administration program that regardless of what our socioeconomic status was coming into the program, we were officially in the middle class.  There was a wave of guilt that came over me as if I was leaving a part of myself behind; that I was leaving my family behind.  I was stuck in a new place, with a new group of people, unable to talk with anyone about how to balance what felt like my lost sense of self with where I wanted to go professionally.  All of this to say, the guilt is very real, but it doesn’t just stop after college graduation.  It is a balance I have continued to have to navigate in my adulthood.

The article brainstorms ways a college or university can better support first-gens.  Understanding that this is an area where a number of schools struggle, I appreciate the way the article brings to light practical ways to meet the needs of this guilt-ridden group.  The recommendation that I struggle the most with is the suggestion to have faculty and staff mentor students.  While it sounds like good practice, it is idealistic at best.  The first concern is that it requires students to self-identify as first-gen, which as the article points out, is a double-edged sword for students.  Some see this a point of embarrassment and a possible hindrance to their success in college, while others see it as a source of pride in overcoming adversity.  But this is also where the intersection of SES and other identities factors in too.  Being a first-gen student of color can mean a very different college experiences for a first-gen white student, which may or may not be navigated through mentorship.  It can be significantly easier for white students to find mentors (especially mentors who look like them) to help them navigate the college landscape.  The article states,

“Nationally, of the 7.3 million undergraduates attending four-year public and private colleges and universities, about 20 percent are first-generation students. About 50 percent of all first-generation college students in the U.S. are low-income. These students are also more likely to be a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.”

With almost 1.5 million students sharing this important piece of identity, it would be beneficial to encourage faculty and staff to share about their own experiences as first-gens to help de-stigmatize and show students possible allies who understand their experience, understand their guilt.  The article suggests numerous other avenues for schools to consider as well, including website and curriculum redevelopment.  Regardless of the avenue taken, colleges and universities must consider new options that meets the needs of the changing landscape of our student population.  Part of this process means better understanding the way other pieces of a student’s identity intersect with socioeconomic status in order to shape their college experience and pursue tangible opportunities for student support and success.


Meghan Luzader is the Vice Chair of the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education KC. She also works in Residence Life at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.