Like many, I was a first-generation college student whose family lacked the economic means to send me to college. With a state tuition scholarship from high school, loans, campus jobs, and help from my friends, I was able to attend and graduate from Eastern Illinois University (EIU).
First-generation students were probably the majority of students at state colleges and universities in the Midwest when I first attended college, but unlike today, most of the first-generation students then were not minority, low-income, or students who were new in the United States.
Today, students whose parents have had no postsecondary education or experiences are given the opportunity to participate in pre-college programs while in high school, and the equity-minded colleges these students attend often provide special programs to ease the transition from high school into college. Committed to their success, colleges who identify students as first-generation generally provide special support programs that include advising, tutoring, and opportunities for engagement with the broader academic and local community.
All first-generation students are not the same. As I recall my experience as a first-generation college student, it was another identity that distinguished some of my peers and me and caused us to experience college differently than other first-generation students. Being a Black college student on a White college campus less than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision compounded the obstacles already inherent to my success as a first-generation student.
I was not aware of any special programs to help level the playing field. Upon reflection, however, I realize that for me, more important than a special program would have been a concerted effort by the college to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. I believe the president wanted Black and other first-generation students to feel welcome, but it takes every individual in the academic community to create such an environment.
I can’t speak for other Black students who were my peers, but I dreaded going to the faculty advisor I was assigned. I needed support as a first-generation student, and what I received was indifference. I felt as if the advisor hated this part of the faculty role. When I attempted to share my goals, he did not listen. My advisor made no effort to get to know me, and I felt that he hated me because I was Black and looked down on me because I was poor. The selection of advisors for first-generation students is critical not only for making the climate supportive, but for the ultimate success of students.
My being in class was awkward for everyone. No one looked at me and I didn’t draw attention to myself. I kept my eyes on my textbook, my notebook, the chalk board, and the professor. When I would feel someone staring at me, I would resist the urge to look directly at the person, but would just begin to turn my head in their direction. That always broke the stare.
One professor, who was my favorite, stands out for me because he was the one faculty member who looked directly at me when his eyes surveyed the classroom. All the other professors had this uncanny ability to look around the classroom and never see me. I should have stood out since I was the only Black student in any given class.
With the diversity of students in classes today, faculty who do not know how to help all students feel included should request professional development. At minimum, faculty can incorporate basic strategies to develop an inclusive classroom environment by making eye contact with all students, pronouncing their names correctly, finding creative ways to encourage all students to participate in class discussions, and providing opportunities for group projects in which students are randomly assigned.
As I was nearing the end of my first quarter at EIU, I began to worry about what grades I would receive at the end of the term. An uncaring advisor and awkward classrooms did not help my grades and neither did the fact that I had been having a good time with my Black peers and our new-found freedom. I decided to call my mother to alert her to what might happen if my grades were as bad as I expected them to be.
I remember using a pay phone in the Student Union. My mother was surprised to hear from me because I didn’t have the kind of money to make long distance telephone calls unless there was something important to convey. To begin this difficult conversation, I asked about every single person in the family. I could sense that my mother wanted me to get to the reason why I called.
Finally, I said, “My classes are really hard, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
“What do you mean when you say you don’t think you’re going to make it?” she responded.
“My grades may not be good enough for me to stay in college, so I might have to come home.” I waited for her response.
After a short time she said, “That’s too bad. You can’t come here because your sister has your room now. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”
I just hung on the line for a beat or so because I was afraid to let go. In just a few words, my mother made it clear that she was not going to rescue me. Shocked and afraid, I realized that what happened to me from this point on was entirely up to me.
I believe that support programs, caring advisors, inclusive classrooms. and an overall inclusive campus climate make a difference for first-generation and all students. I also believe that every student will have unique motivators that are separate and distinct from anything the college or university can provide. Being self-motivated is a powerful impetus to succeed. What first-generation students may need most is someone to help them identify what motivates them most.