Three years ago, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a liberal arts college and a university.
I had no idea what the college application process entailed, couldn’t care less about the SATs and my main objective in life was just to get good grades and get out of high school.
Sure, I had dreamed of going to college since I was a little girl, but the world of universities was so foreign to me that I didn’t know how to begin to wrap my head around it. I had high aspirations, I just had no idea how to attain them.
When I stepped foot on Lehigh’s campus last August, I became the first person in my entire family to attend a university. This meant opening myself up to an entirely new set of experiences and challenges that none of them had previously encountered.
According to imfirst.org, 11 percent of Lehigh undergraduates are first-generation college students. First-gens are usually defined as students whose parents either have no college experience or didn’t earn a bachelor’s degree.
Being a first-generation college student can be a uniquely challenging experience. However, I would argue that being a first-gen at an elite university like Lehigh requires even more of an adjustment.
Many first-gens experience feelings of shame, guilt and inadequacy upon first entering college and struggle to find their place. They see their decision to attend college as a shift away from the continuity of their family’s experiences, and often undergo a crisis of identity.
Personally, coming to Lehigh has caused me to question my understanding of social status. Although privilege is not something I consciously thought about prior to coming to college, it now seems to feature far more prominently in my thoughts. Despite the fact that we live in a country where it’s often taboo to talk about socioeconomic status and wealth, the social pyramid becomes blatantly obvious in higher education. First-gens and low-income students make up a hidden minority that is often overlooked by most of the campus community.
Because class is a marker by which we tend to compare ourselves, especially in a school where the culture appears so homogenized, it can be hard to admit you are different. Facing the reality that you and your peers lead vastly different lives can be daunting, and trying to find your place in a world you didn’t previously realize existed can be a difficult task.
None of this is to say that we don’t belong here. First-gens work incredibly hard to get to college and we have a lot to prove. I, like many first-gens, earned my place at Lehigh without the help of tutors or parents who were familiar with the college application process.
In fact, when making big decisions regarding our educations and future careers, first-gens often find that our parents can’t provide all of the answers we need.
There are certain assumptions about what students know — such as how to talk to professors or how to network — that first-gens often have to learn to do from scratch. Likewise, I have personally struggled with feeling inadequate and unable to articulate myself to the same degree as my fellow students.
Over time, first-gens build up a sort of resilience to these challenges, as we are constantly faced with new obstacles that we must figure out how to overcome.
However, that doesn’t mean that our community shouldn’t do more to aid those who confront the challenges of college on their own. There are ways to help spur dialogue in order to make it easier for first-gens to become adjusted to the elite university life.
Many Ivy League schools have initiated efforts, such as the Hidden Minority Council at Princeton and the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership at Yale and Columbia, to stimulate conversations about the adversity faced by first-gens and to help to clear up misconceptions.
More schools, including Lehigh, should also rise to the occasion. These sorts of groups present first-gens with opportunities to share their experiences and provide them with a source of edification and empowerment. They bring to light the unchecked privilege, unasked questions and unheard voices that exist on college campuses, and exist to increase communication and understanding among different groups.
In many ways, I’m still figuring out this college thing. There are days when I wish certain aspects of college life were more natural to me, or that I had connections that could guarantee that I’ll find a successful career after graduation. For first-gens, the stakes of attending an elite university are often higher, and there is more pressure on us to prove ourselves and make our families proud.
However, I find that the challenges I face only further drive me to prove why I am worthy of my place in this school.