The first-generation college experience

When I knew I had gotten into Yale, one of my first and most exciting duties was to put in an International Student Financial Aid Application as well as a supplement that the university called its “Biographic Questionnaire.” It was exciting because I knew that with ten or so pages of administrative burden I’d be claiming a scholarship worth a good US$50,000 or so a year; without those forms I wouldn’t have had an ice cube’s chance in hell paying for college.

In that “Biographic Questionnaire,” I came across a funny question, which ran along the lines of “are you the first person in your family to attend college?” Why did this matter? Neither of my parents had. But my stepbrother–whom I barely knew and had never grown up with–was now a psychology professor at a small college in Washington state. How about him? I shrugged it off: Americans have nuclear families, right? Stepsiblings probably don’t count. Unlike me, my mother fretted about the forms. If it was Singapore we’d probably have had to submit supporting documentation for the last ten years of income and expenditure, along with birth certificates and tax forms. (No, I’m only half joking: they would already have the information.)

Thankfully, the money came through. And naturally, I continued checking that box throughout college, and claimed for myself the identity of a First-Generation College Student. If anything, I thought, surely it was an advantage, since it reduced the miniscule possibility that my financial aid would ever be cut. Otherwise, I argued over dining-hall tables and across seminar rooms with the kids of doctors, academics, lawyers, researchers, thinking little about my own patrimony, the son of an administrative assistant and a middling businessman with a late-career turn to property management. Other than that box on a form I had to fill out once a year, that first-generation status was not something I ever noticed.

That said, figuring out college was strange and exciting. Who were Professors, Lecturers, Deans, Masters? What were these malformed half-academic creatures called Graduate Students? Where were they in the academy? What were office hours and who, who dared trouble professors with mere homework problems–weren’t these just things you figured out on your own? If one very generous mentor had not lavished his time and attention on my unpolished stabs at writing The Personal Essay I don’t think I would have seen the inside of a faculty office all freshman year. I thought this was natural–that all freshmen faced office hours with the same quaking of the knees. Or that this was the international student experience, that perhaps Americans were less deferential, more willing to reach out for help. My grades certainly don’t show any evidence of having suffered for it. So with no objective criteria on which to assess my college experience other than my grades–which assured me I was doing just fine–I had no inkling that the nature of the estrangement and excitement in my college experience was any different from that of any of my peers.

On the other hand, keeping a connection to home through Skype, phone calls, and visits over term breaks only reinforced the disconnect between the worlds of college and home. I managed to maintain a Singaporean accent through my mum, but otherwise among Americans it was easier to say ‘wadderr’ than make people think I was referring to some exotic Asian leafy vegetable. My mum disapproved of my freshman seminar on Beethoven (“extracurriculars is fine, but don’t waste your time at Yale–Yale, you know?–doing music classes!”), but otherwise left me to it. 9000 miles of distance makes you leave some things up to fate, chance, and prayer.

One thing that will stick in my memory is the little slips of paper on which she meticulously kept records of every class I took and the times and days of the week on which they met, which I first discovered when I went back home over a freezing New England winter break. I love her dearly, but aside from a few personal essays and that meticulously-kept timetable we both know there wasn’t much else in or about those classes she would have comprehended. We could not discuss schoolwork even though she insisted I wrap myself in it and nothing else. Instead, we talked about dining hall food and the weather, and she asked me whether I had enough money, and reminded me not to mix the whites and coloureds and to only do cold washes and tumble dry on low heat.

And so even as I followed her well-meaning advice and gentle nagging about what it meant to be a Student in University–a role that neither she nor any of her siblings or close friends had ever performed–I found myself drifting far away from her–something that has barely registered up till now.

I read a New York Times article on first-generation students last week. Many little particulars stood out: being proud of knowing how to do laundry; not having a favourite Renaissance painter; seeing office hours as an “imposition” rather than an “expectation.” These were experiences I’d had too, and I felt some recall resonance there. But of course there were other struggles I could not claim as my own: for instance, not struggling financially to get books and winter clothes. I did not at first identify with being a first-generation college student, just as I hadn’t in my four years of college.

Instead, when I first read it the article was fascinating primarily because being “first-generation” is such a clean way to diagnose disadvantage. It is rare to find those convenient situations where classification so neatly aligns with disadvantage, mainly because when we do, we usually find ways to correct it. In the US in 1968 or in South Africa in 1994, for instance, being black would have almost certainly indicated a huge deficit in social and cultural capital. But today, even though the everyday experience of race continues to be one of disrespect and hurt, class rather than race is a more salient indicator of material disadvantage. And though there are good qualitative definitions of class (I like Weber’s: “a class situation is one in which there is a shared typical probability of procuring goods, gaining a position in life, and finding inner satisfaction”) it is an awfully difficult thing to measure. It was therefore surprising and interesting, as a student of sociology, to find one objective measure stacking up so well with what seemed to be a common experience. Nevertheless, I remained sceptical about the fact that it might be a common experience; that it might have been something that I also shared certainly did not cross my mind.

Until tonight, that is, when I remarked casually–reflecting on a week of not very much in the way of work done, but a very great deal of cooking–that the aspect of my time in South Africa that my relatives might be most impressed with is not my dissertation but the number of dishes I’ve learnt to prepare, the tricks in the kitchen I’ve mastered, the fact that I’ve been able to do a dinner party for nine people. That’s when I began to make emotive connections to the experiences that the students had described. “I think there’re times when I feel really proud, like I’ll call my mom back home and I’ll be like, ‘you will not believe this kid does not know how to do their own laundry!'” (I’m convinced one of my housemates in college did not know how to use a sponge.) “[My mom] was shocked that I was already earning what she took years to be able to make.” (Ditto.) “There’s oftentimes a lot of assumptions about what we know: that we know how to talk to professors, that we know how to network, that we know how to use office hours.” (I sometimes wondered how some of my peers had managed to plug themselves so seamlessly into the university world.) “They cannot text parents for help with paper topics or insights on choosing a major.” (“Politics, hm… don’t say too much, okay?”)

It even began to grate on me a little that the kids from my high school who reached out to me for college advice were actually the ones who were already well-placed enough to navigate college. They knew how to ask for advice. They even prepared lists of questions to be checked off. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course; it’s just that I wouldn’t have known the questions to be asked. They already had a field guide to college in their stock of social capital gifted through the family, while I went in an unwitting ethnographer approaching an uncontacted tribe whose traditional dress was boat shoes and salmon-coloured shorts. It’s not unfair, because none of us chose the families we were born into. But it is different, and that difference is real.

Even though I did fine by all the regular standards of college, I’m now convinced that the separateness of the first-generation college experience was real for me. I remain opposed to that privilege-and-disadvantage Olympics that seems to be going on these days, in which people seem to be competing each other to the bottom, laying claim to as many disadvantaged identities as possible in order to prove that the system needs an overhaul. (Sure it does, but that’s not the way to do it.) Identities that are staked out solely on the basis of having been disadvantaged become immutable, which in turn makes it harder to overcome the experience of disadvantage. Moreover, dimensions of disadvantage are incommensurable. There’s no points system that will tell you who had the worst experience. And everyone enjoys advantages and disadvantages depending on context: a researcher in the field is advantaged in that she is educated and (barely) financially secure enough to conduct her studies; she’s also disempowered by the fact that her presence in the field is on the sufferance of her research subjects. Yet, as I’ve found out by writing the first half of this piece, I cannot deny the reality of disadvantage. Therefore, without disclaiming any of the layers of my identity whether they confer advantage or disadvantage, I will close by not saying too much:

Being a first-generation college student Is A Thing, and I was a first-generation college student.


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