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.
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.”