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Real Advice for First-Gens

How first-generation students can successfully navigate college unknowns
Real Advice for First-Gens

Anthony Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, knows a thing or two about what it’s like for first-generation college-goers — how daunting it can be, and how many students struggle not only with a feeling that they don’t belong, but also with worries that they won’t succeed. Jack lived it all, when he became the first in his family to attend college. He’s been studying social class in wealthy, elite colleges ever since — research that has now culminated in his first book, The Privileged Poor. Coining the term “privileged poor” for low-income students who attended private high schools before coming to college, and “doubly disadvantaged” for those who attended public high schools before college, Jack examines how each group experiences the social and cultural aspects of college in distinct ways.

Jack offers targeted advice for first-generation students — and the school counselors, advisers, and family members who may be helping to guide them — on navigating the challenges they’ll face, many of which go unaddressed during college orientations and beyond. He includes graduate students under the “first-generation” umbrella, since graduate school is full of the same kinds of assumed knowledge and unspoken rituals as college.

We summarize Jack’s pointers below — and encourage school counselors and college advisers to share them with students who are preparing to make their higher-ed transition.

>> Learn more about Anthony Jack and his research here.

Make college work for you

To make the most of college, it’s crucial for first-generation students who may not have the language and the “insider” knowledge to seek out that knowledge, Jack says. The easiest way to get ahead is with the people whose jobs and passions are about bridging the gaps.

If you can’t figure out what information you need, then figure out the person being paid to help you, says Jack. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” he says. “There are people who are paid to search for certain things. Tap into it, because it’s free. You are entitled to the time and resources of the university. Use it.”

To make the most of college, it’s crucial for first-generation students who may not have the language and the “insider” knowledge to seek out that knowledge, Jack says.

Among the many places first-gen students should visit are the fellowships office, the financial aid office, the student affairs office, the school’s website — any place that can help determine where to go for the additional support you may need. But first, Jack advises understanding yourself and figuring out what you need, so when it comes time to leave college, you’re as well positioned as possible.

“Reach out to that person. Bridge the gap. Start the conversation,” Jack says. “Do it. Apply for it. Go meet that person. Find as many opportunities as possible by putting yourself out there.”

Get your time with faculty

Remember that faculty members are being paid to educate you, Jack says. Faculty office hours exist for a reason, so take advantage of that time. If it will help ease your nerves, do a little research and put in some thought beforehand so you can feel reassured that you are part of this space. Some tips: Learn about the faculty member, and consider coming with a prepared question, like, “I read your op-ed in the news. What inspired you to write that piece?” or “What steps did you take in your career to become Secretary of Education?”

But “don’t dwell on having the perfect question, because there is no perfect question,” Jack says. “This is more about finding the bounds to start a conversation … have that game plan for the 30 minutes.”

If you are feeling intimidated, then seek out a teaching fellow, who can provide insight on how to approach a faculty member and can even help.

Be patient with family and friends

One of the hardest things for first-generation college-goers is responding to family and friends back home. While they are no doubt proud of you, they also may not understand the life and work of college, especially at the graduate school level.

“There’s a lot of translational work we need to do with families about not only the 'what' we are doing, but the 'why,'” Jack says. “Sometimes you have to forgive family for maybe feeling a little resentment that you are doing the exact thing that they are most proud of and wanted you to do in the first place. There's a lot of conversations that need to happen to demystify what you are doing. That can be hard, as you don’t always know what is going on around you to figure out how to explain it to someone else.”

“There’s a lot of translational work we need to do with families about not only the 'what' we are doing but the 'why,'” Jack says. “... That can be hard, as you don’t always know what is going on around you to figure out how to explain it to someone else.”

Take care of you

A proponent of the importance of self-care, Jack acknowledges that many first-generation students struggle to straddle college life and obligations or challenges back at home. They may feel overtaxed on both fronts. He advises students to make time for themselves — and to set the boundaries they need in order to ensure their own wellness. “Take care of yourself, so that when you get to higher ground, you can do more for your family than when you are struggling and climbing yourself,” he says. Figure out what you need to succeed, and keep the long view in mind, he says.  

It’s not networking; it’s building a network

Try not to think of networking as an effort to collect as many cards as possible or connect to hundreds of names on LinkedIn, he says. Instead Jack suggests the value of building a network with a small number of trusted people who are just as interested in your development as you are theirs. While building a network is important and valuable, so that when college ends you have someone to make a recommendation or endorsement, know that it’s about cultivating real relationships with a range of people — a peer, an alum, a faculty member, and a staff member.

Be "unapologetically elite"

If you keep questioning whether you belong, Jack says it’s important to learn how to own your accomplishments and be “unapologetically elite.” “You have accomplished so much to be sitting in that room. Never apologize for being in the space or having the titles or positions you earn,” Jack says. “A lot of us have been made to feel like they need to second guess why they got here or why they got something, like you are an affirmative action case. Well, know that if affirmative action got you here then it won’t help you graduate. There’s no affirmative action in grades.” The next time you think about not saying your institution’s name, for fear of reprisal, remember this, Jack says: “If you put the name of your college on your resume, then put it on your lips in conversation.”

Still can’t quite shake the feeling that you don’t belong at your institution? Well, get a good mirror and start practicing your superhero pose, Jack says. Part of the process is believing in yourself by figuring out what you do well and what skills you can get better at. Then, work on it, own it, and let yourself grow.

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