Surviving life as a first-generation grad student, part I

Following a semester filled with dissertation work, constant lecture writing, grading, and meetings, pedagogical experimentation, a hurried research trip, a cross-country conference presentation, and all the self-doubt, exhaustion, elation, and humility that comes with teaching one’s first course, I now return to regular blogging.

And I’d like to do so, first, by pointing to some excellent posts I read recently in GradHacker on the subject of first-generation students in graduate school. Those of you familiar with my blog know I’m a first-generation college and graduate student and believe many of the perspectives and concerns of first-generation students have yet to be fully recognized and appreciated within the academy, so I was glad to see some attention devoted to this topic in GradHacker. Jess Waggoner, Auriel Fournier, and Alicia Peaker each contribute insightful posts that not only offer honest advice to first-generation grad students (a.k.a. “FGGS”), but also explain aspects of the first-generation experience to those outside the FGGS community. Most of their recommendations wisely focus less on what separates FGGS from their peers than on ways FGGS can connect with others–be they other members of academia, mentors, or even members of one’s own family. Although I’ll leave the meat of each post for you to peruse on your own I’ve listed some of my favorite highlights below and, in the second part of this post, I’ll offer some of my own recommendations for first-generation grad students.

First up, by order of publication: Jess Waggoner’s “Beyond Imposter Syndrome: Graduate Study for First-Generation Students.”

‘Impostor Syndrome’ is often thrown around as a one-size-fits-all pathology for first-generations, women, students with disabilities, and students of color who feel uncomfortable with the conventions of the academy. Let me change the terms of the conversation a bit: you don’t have a ‘syndrome.’ Academia is just a confusing system that isn’t always the most transparent.

Well said, Ms. Waggoner, well said. Dominant systems and cultures generally expect would-be members to “climb up” and conform to their norms rather than recognize, appreciate, and integrate the norms of “lesser/lower/outside” groups. Many academic disciplines have documented the tendency toward this process in detail, but it can be difficult to discern in one’s own behavior and interaction and still more difficult to discern the ways it weaves itself into the structures of an entire system. Waggoner describes herself as a “slightly obnoxious class warrior” by the end of her undergraduate career. To this I say hey, aren’t most people who challenge dominant systems and cultures, who prod so-called insiders to confront the experiences, perspectives, and realities of so-called outsiders usually considered at least slightly “obnoxious”? If educators within the academy expect to be able to challenge their students’ beliefs, to make them confront problems of thought and analysis even if it makes them uncomfortable, why should members of the academy expect any less of themselves? But yes, discomfort can be obnoxious.

Next, Auriel Fournier’s “Family Ties and Grad School ‘Why’s’.”

I’m the first member of my family to go to graduate school. In their mind I’m still ‘just a student.’ They don’t understand the intricacies of my job or that I even have one…If your family and friends aren’t academics there can be some communication breakdown since they aren’t going through the highs and lows of grad school.

Ah, yes, the “when are you going to get a real job?” perspective, generally also accompanied by the “what do you mean you’re busy working?” line of thought. I admire all Fournier’s recommendations for maintaining solid family ties while pursuing a graduate degree. Communication problems can, of course, arise in the life of any graduate student but I agree they are much more likely to occur when one’s family has no personal knowledge of the college or grad school experience. It takes a lot of hard work to explain what’s involved in grad school and why certain activities are required within a given profession or career path. Often it can seem like another side project, one that requires constant monitoring and regular adjustments to maintain. Like most everything else in grad school, it’s a balancing act.

Finally, Alicia Peaker’s “From First-Generation College Student to First-Generation Grad Student”:

Always remember that these kinds of regular failures are NORMAL and do not mean that you are incompetent, merely learning. And there is a LOT of learning in graduate school. At a certain point, graduate school is more a test of how well you can learn from failures and keep persevering rather than producing perfect work.

Peaker offers some excellent advice for FGGS struggling with their new status and workload as grad students. I most admire her encouragement to find common ground with other grad students and her recommendations for coping with failure. My impression, from a combination of personal experience and working with first-generation, low-income, and minority students as a graduate assistant in my first year of grad school, is that most FGGS already know a lot about perseverance. “Failure” might be less a problem for FGGS than letting go of perfectionism or over-worrying about the way academic performance and professional potential is perceived by faculty and mentors. There are also still many issues related to institutional support when it comes to students experiencing personal hardship or family crisis as a result of their background or circumstances. Often there are few formal protocols in place, for instance, to ensure that a student who is unable to complete a project on time due to personal crisis is not misjudged as academically, intellectually, or motivationally-challenged merely as a result of the personal challenges that student faces. Here there remains much work to be done, as opinion and interpretation ought not play a larger role than reality in matters of appointments, grades, funding, and opportunity.

Peaker writes, “there is a major lack of research about first-generation grad students (FGGS).” Hopefully the more FGGS who enter graduate school, the more their experiences and perspectives will contribute to the diversity of the academic community.

You can view part II of this post here.

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