One of the biggest lessons I teach my classes? I was a first-generation college student, just like many of them.
Not all first-gen students are underprepared academically, but they all need to know they belong in college.
I was about 8 years old when I first figured out that my family was poor. During the monthly Hot Dog Day at my elementary school, my mom had to sit down and do the math to see if we could spare enough for even one hot dog — an extra hot dog, let alone a donut, was out of the question.
Today, I’m a tenured faculty member at UC Irvine, where more than half of our students are, like me, among the first in their families to go to college.
With a new school year underway, I look out at these excited, anxious newcomers and see a reflection of myself.
When they look at me, though, many can’t imagine that I can relate. They have no idea that I was the trailblazer in my household. My mom — a single parent who left school in 10th grade — worked minimum wage jobs in fast-food and retail. When I was in third grade, determined to be a good role model for her academically gifted daughters, she hitchhiked across town for classes to earn her GED — something for which my classmates ridiculed me mercilessly.
I realized early on that education was my ticket out of the unrewarding employment and financial insecurity I saw my mother, a high school dropout, struggle with on a daily basis.
My UC Irvine students see someone who is at home on a college campus, someone well-versed in the norms of university culture and fluent in the language of academe. They probably imagine that I always knew I was going to college — and that my biggest challenge was deciding where to go.
They don’t immediately see past the aura of confidence and accomplishment that I have learned to project — a confidence that in my case, as in the case of many faculty members from low-income and underrepresented communities, has been hard won. So one of the first things I tell my students is, “Don’t be fooled by this middle-class paint job.”
I did well in school, and enrolled in community college determined and dedicated. But working full-time as a housekeeper and nanny, my grades suffered, and there were times I was so exhausted that I struggled to stay awake in classes.
When I transferred to a prestigious university as a junior, I felt out of place among my classmates. They all seemed to be the kids of doctors and other educated professionals. They all seemed so comfortable and self-assured. Whenever I found school or life on campus difficult, I assumed it was my fault — proof that I didn’t deserve to be there.
When I share my story, my students are usually surprised. For some, it’s one of the most important lessons they learn in my class.
Challenging perceptions about first-generation students
Lately, the media has been filled with stories about first-gen students and their struggles to succeed in higher education.
Often “first-generation” is used as a code word to reinforce stereotypes about these students: that they are exclusively poor, students of color and from low-performing urban schools. The reality is much more complex. Although many first-generation students do reflect these demographics, nationwide only 50 percent of first-generation students come from low-income families, and a significant percentage of those are white families. While some attend underserved schools, others graduate from high-performing schools that set them up for academic success.
At UC Irvine, our first-generation students come from all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds: They are Caucasian, Asian, African American and Latina/o. They grew up in comfortable two-parent middle-class homes and in low-income, single-parent households, in neighborhoods that range from quiet rural and suburban ones to busy urban barrios. They were born in California, in other parts of the U.S., in countries faraway and nearby.
Why is it important to push against these misconceptions? I believe that treating all first-generation students like they are underprepared does them a disservice. They have earned their way into competitive universities by being at the top of their high school class, and many have overcome significant barriers to get here. In many cases, that actually gives them extra ammunition and the resilience to succeed.
But it’s also important to recognize that first-generation students do face particular challenges — challenges we can help them address and overcome.
The biggie? For many first-gen students, the first year at university is like moving to a foreign country where they don’t speak the language, without a map or a guidebook. They have no prior knowledge to draw upon in figuring out how to fit in and succeed.
At UC Irvine, there’s a pattern that I see over and over again.
I meet students who are bright, charismatic and inquisitive — but by the end of the first quarter, they are struggling, facing bad grades and the threat of academic probation. They spend the rest of their freshman year trying to pull themselves out of that hole — and they do. By the time they are juniors, they are thriving.
Unfortunately, though, they are still carrying the weight of that difficult first quarter. It drags down their GPA, making graduate school that much less likely.
The importance of building social capital
So why is this the case?
Research has shown that academics are only one factor — and often not the most important one — in why first-generation students may have a more difficult time in their first year.
Here are some others:
First, they lack the academic advice from family that continuing-generation students implicitly or explicitly receive. Their family may not be aware of how much time and commitment college requires, may pressure them to study less in order to be home more, or respond negatively to the student’s changing ideas and aspirations. While many families support their students’ desire to pursue higher education, other family members may question the value of attending college altogether.
Second, first-gen students are more likely to see early academic stumbling as evidence that they don’t belong. Some of them suffer from impostor syndrome — when they get an A on an assignment, they think it was a lucky accident; when they get a D, they take it as proof that they are in over their heads.
Next, they are often isolated and unsure of themselves when they transition to life as a freshman. They are afraid to ask questions, out of fear that it will mark them as unaware of stuff they think everyone else already knows. Or worse, they make wrong assumptions about how things “work” at university that end up hurting them academically or socially, or both.
Finally, they are less likely to seek extra help, access services or take advantage of professors’ office hours, because they think these things are an admission of their inadequacy, rather than strategies for success.
First-generation students from low-income families also face the challenge of being less able to afford resources such as computers and books, and are more likely to work many hours outside class while contributing financially to their households.
Fatigue, loneliness and self-doubt prevent many of these students from realizing how much they have already achieved by finding their way to university on their own and without a roadmap.
They don’t understand that, despite their struggles, their persistence and ambition often makes them more equipped than their peers to succeed.
They need to know these things.
The power of saying ‘I can relate’
This fall, UC Irvine’s School of Social Sciences launched the First Generation First Quarter Challenge, a pilot mentorship program for incoming freshmen who are the first in their family to pursue a university degree.
The 10-week program connects incoming students with high-achieving first-generation upper-level student leaders, who give them a crash course in survival skills and insider knowledge to make the transition to college easier.
Student leaders talk about the importance of time management, of forming study groups and building relationships with professors, of joining student organizations and making use of all the resources the campus has to offer.
They empathize with new first-gen students’ fears and struggles and share how they have balanced schoolwork with outside pressures — like family demands or long commutes. And they are still among the top students in their class — a function of their aptitude, tenacity and hard work.
Our First Generation Faculty Initiative, a program that so far has reached out to 65 faculty members and continues to grow its efforts, taps first-gen professors as role models and allies. That program enters its third year this fall.
At UC Irvine, we have a significant number of academics who were themselves first-generation students, including Chancellor Howard Gillman. Dozens of faculty, across all kinds of disciplines, backgrounds and walks of life, show that this experience cuts across race, gender and socioeconomic status.
Increasing the visibility of these diverse faculty members is important. It’s what lets students know we are approachable and can relate, despite our impressive titles, degrees and accomplishments.
One of the ways we are doing that? We launched a campaign at the beginning of the quarter to “out” ourselves as former first-generation students.
We will be wearing T-shirts and buttons throughout the fall quarter that proudly proclaim each of us as a “#firstgen college grad.” First-gen faculty, students and even some UC Irvine alumni are taking selfies together and posting these images, along with their stories and messages of encouragement, online.
This is just one of the ways that the First Generation Faculty Initiative is working to make our campus even more “first-gen friendly.”
We know that this doesn’t require complicated pedagogical approaches or a radically new curriculum. It doesn’t take busy faculty away from time spent teaching or doing research. But it’s changing the classroom, and our campus climate, for the better.
Acknowledging and celebrating our first-generation identities might seem like a small thing — but it’s not small to our first-gen students. When I started sharing my story in my classes, my office hours blew up overnight. Until then I had struggled to convince students — especially those who could benefit most from added support — to come to my office.
Suddenly, they were waiting in line to see me and to say — with a newfound pride — “Me, too. I’m first in my family to go to college.”
Many of those same students are now serving as student leaders and mentors themselves.
As a history professor, I strive to open my students’ eyes — not only to the richness and complexity of historical thinking — but also to the ways that the past informs, but doesn’t necessarily determine, our personal futures. I work hard to help them grasp the full measure of their potential. By letting them know that I was once in their shoes, I am not just changing the way students see me. I can change the way they see themselves.
Anita Casavantes Bradford is an associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies and history at UC Irvine. She received a Ph.D. in U.S. and Latin American History from UC San Diego and served as a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Dr. Casavantes Bradford is a former high school teacher and freelance journalist who has written extensively on issues surrounding culture, education and social inequality. Her academic work focuses on Latina/o and Cuban history, as well as issues of immigration, race and ethnicity, and childhood and the family. She currently chairs UC Irvine’s Committee on Equity and Inclusion for AB540/undocumented students, and is the director of UC Irvine’s First Generation Faculty Initiative. She also serves as co-director of the UC-Cuba Multi-Campus Academic Initiative, which supports graduate student and faculty research on Cuban topics.