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.

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.

Taking the time to be involved

Hubble ultra deep field scanThe most esteemed Captain James Tiberius Kirk once said, “If something’s important, you make the time.” This quote stuck in my mind from the first time I heard it, and not simply because I belong to that cadre of academics who possess an affinity for most things Star Trek. No, high correlation between academia and trek-philia aside, I appreciate the sentiment that in spite of whatever else one has going on in one’s life, there are some things that one simply must make time for–either because they are just that important or because they are, in the long run, good for one.  This might also be understood as keeping an eye on the “bigger picture” and understanding that there are things in life that are larger and more significant than one’s own (selfish) needs and worries. In my experience it is often the larger, the more significant-than-thyself things that actually help me push through challenges and day-to-day problems. Knowing that I’m helping myself in the long run doesn’t hurt either. Taking the time to be involved can be difficult for the ever-busy graduate student, but it’s ultimately a game in which there are no losers. Being involved will not only help you stay sane; it’s also a very useful tool for gaining the sorts of skills and connections that improve your prospects on the job market.

There are several reasons I’m so pushy on this issue. Having spent most of my undergraduate career not being involved in any sort of service work–academic or otherwise–I speak from experience when I say that being involved pays off. As an undergraduate I paid my own way. My family did not possess the means to contribute to–let alone support–my college education, so I did it myself. I was fortunate enough to have access to the wonderful (pre-Bush level) federal Pell grants and I won a few scholarships here and there. But I also typically worked no less than two jobs simultaneously (at times it was three) while I attended school full-time and lived on my own. It used to drive me insane when I would overhear fellow classmates complain about the amount of homework they had to do, even as they admitted to not working, living at home, and sleeping in long hours every weekend. Fear of living in poverty the rest of my life served as one heck of a motivator, but so did my knowledge that I was extremely lucky to be receiving a college education at all and that my family was very proud of me for all of the work I was doing. Whenever I would get down about having to work 35, 40 or even 62 hours per week and still make time to write that paper or study for that exam, I would think about how great it would be to not have to live paycheck to paycheck and how I could–perhaps one day–even have the kind of job that would not only allow me to support myself but also help members of my family make ends meet. During those years, it was my involvement with family and appreciation of what a college education could mean for both me and them that helped me push through.

Much to my amazement I not only made it to graduate school, but was also financially able to attend thanks to a graduate assistantship with the Office of Academic Support and Intercultural Services (OASIS) at UNL’s Culture Center. My year at OASIS was crucial to my adjustment to my new status as a graduate student. Working with undergraduates who were also first-generation and from low-income backgrounds helped ease my culture shock by opening the door to an entire community of peers who faced many of the same issues I did. And, although I am an introvert at heart, I also forced myself to step up and join UNL’s History Graduate Students’ Association (HGSA). I quickly began to experience the many advantages of being involved in organizational service work while in grad school. Here are my top three reasons for promoting grad student involvement:

  1. It will pay off in the long run. This should appeal to both the humanistic and the selfish regions of your noodle. By being involved in a community of peers and volunteering your time to perform service work for the good of the whole organization you are simultaneously furthering your own interests. You are gaining experience balancing the various aspects of your life with the responsibilities of being a hard-working adult. You are collaborating, working, and communicating with others in ways that will help you forge the social connections and people skills that will serve you well throughout the rest of your life. You are demonstrating to your peers, mentors, and potential employers that you are not only capable but willing and ready to take the initiative, collaborate, and lead by example. This should make for at least a few good lines on your c.v., not to mention bragging rights about being all Spock-like by putting the good of the many above the good of the one or the few and what not.
  2. Wherever your career takes you, being involved will be key to your success. No one is going to hire you to sit in a corner all day grumbling to yourself about all the work you have to do. The jobs of the future are jobs in which the best individuals–and hence the best employees–are those who collaborate with others to the benefit of all. The sooner you start developing and practicing the kinds of skills and habits that you’ll need to obtain your dream job, the better. Like it or not, you will be competing with those of us who are involved and we’ll have all those extra lines on our vitae and pumped up reference letters to prove it. (Revisit point number one if you need more motivation.)
  3. It’s called part of being a decent human being. No moral judgment intended here but really–human society didn’t get where it is today by way of selfish individualism. You think those cave-babies made it to puberty on their own? No, they lived long enough to become your ancestors because their tribes (i.e. an aggregate of human critters working together) devised ways to shelter, protect, and provide for themselves as a unit. Surely, now and then a cave girl or boy needed time to themselves or held a few berries back as a special bedtime snack, but the point is that cooperation has done some serious good for humanity over the years. It wouldn’t hurt if we all took a turn.