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

Image of flower in concrete by KittyThis post has been percolating in my head for some time, perhaps since I first entered graduate school or maybe even since I became an undergraduate. I’ve whittled it down to what I hope are those points most useful for my primary intended audience: other first-generation students — both those currently in grad school (a.k.a. “FGGS”) or those considering grad school. But I also hope non-first geners find this post insightful and informative. Anyone involved in academia should be attuned to the issues and experiences that impact first-generation students, particularly given the recent political push away from affirmative action and toward income and class-based college admission policies as well as the fact that nearly one in four American children are currently growing up in families living below the federal poverty level.

Academic culture has many layers, and it takes time for those new to the academic sphere to recognize, process, and understand its many nuances. Although specific conditions vary from one discipline and professional environment to the next, most cases of culture shock among FGGS revolve around systemic issues of class present throughout academia as well as questions related to adaptation, conformity, integration, and (gasp!) dissent to certain elements of academic culture.

FGGS must first develop an awareness of the character of academic culture, then learn to employ their knowledge of both academic culture and the culture from which they came in a way that not only promotes their personal academic success but hopefully also enhances the scope of academia to the benefit of other disadvantaged and non-traditional students who follow in their footsteps. Below are just a handful of points that may aid my fellow FGGS in this difficult work:

Be idealistic, but not too idealistic. If you’ve made it this far chances are good that perseverance, resilience, and a positive attitude about your own potential played no small role. Hold on to these qualities as you move forward in your graduate career, but monitor your expectations of academia as you move through graduate school. Every system has flaws and, yes, even your professors are human. Too much idealism about the nature of academia and its members will make you more likely to be much too hard on both yourself and those around you, and will probably hamper your academic progress.

Find an academic adviser that is also a mentor. Surround yourself with as many positive examples and as much support as possible. Do everything you can to find an academic adviser you admire, both as a professional and a person. This may be difficult if your program pre-selects your adviser, if your options are limited, or simply because it takes time to get to know another person. Certainly ask around about someone you are considering as an adviser, especially among fellow graduate students in your program who’ve been around the block. One good way to test the waters is to set up a face-to-face meeting with your prospective adviser, “come out” to her or him as a first-generation student, and ask for some specific recommendations on how you can succeed in the program. If this person draws a blank, grows visibly uncomfortable, develops a hostile tone, or completely dismisses the notion that the FGGS experience differs in any way from that of other graduate students, seek someone else. If you don’t have any alternatives to such a person, stay positive and build a collection of other people — both within your program and without — who can be the mentors you need to be successful.

Stay connected with your family and your past. Don’t forget where you came from and who helped get you to where you are now. Your network of family and friends can help carry you through any culture shock and other stress you experience as you work toward your academic goals. Given that many first-generation students come from low-income backgrounds, however, there may be experiences and elements of your past you would rather not think about or engage with. But your past made you who you are, and your perspective and insight are greatly needed in academia. There are many others who would like to be where you are, but for whatever reason will never get there. Consider the ways you can be their spokesperson, but don’t feel pressure to be the representative of a given culture, gender, race, or class.

Work through any difficulties with impostor syndrome, anxiety, depression, personal tragedy, the struggles of family members and friends, and the frustrations that accompany years of work as a low-wage, low-status graduate student. You won’t do yourself any favors by trying to avoid any of these problems. Learning healthy ways to cope with stress will be critical to your success as a graduate student. It can be tempting to harp upon how unfair it is that you have difficulties and disadvantages to cope with that others don’t, but focusing on these differences changes nothing and can be unhealthy. A little commiseration with fellow FGGS goes a long way in relieving some of this tension, but is no substitute for counseling and psychological help when it’s needed. If you find yourself overwhelmed or struggle with your daily habits, sleep patterns, academic progress, and personal relationships seek professional help. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Most colleges and universities have a variety of mental health services available to students, either free of charge or at very low cost, and all mental health providers operate under strict privacy guidelines. Consider how such tools can help you succeed and check into your options.

Speak up. Be a voice for your experiences and perspectives. Doing so will not only make the road less bumpy for those who follow in your footsteps; it will also enhance academia’s educational environment by pushing those within it to expand their understanding of the diversity of cultures and circumstances in which people live.

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