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.