Sometimes, We Get Angry

April 20, 2014

Working with a group of colleagues last summer who had been first generation college students, we were a ways into our first conversation when someone asked “is it ok to talk about the anger?”

It felt as if everyone relaxed a bit after that point.  There are many “feel good” first generation stories, and those certainly need to be told.  Yet there is also the anger  — at the hidden rules, the patronizing, the casual privilege all around, the invisibility, the hunger, the arrogance, the nonsense that sometimes passes for wisdom.

So I’m grateful that Jocelyne Cardona speaks of the whole experience in this piece from the Macalester College newsletter.   It’s worth reading the whole thing.    A taste:

“How are they going to fit in the flow, in the stream of things and not get totally consumed or washed away in that process,” McClure asks. “What capital do [first-generation students] bring to the table that is going to contribute to a broader story?”

For Cardona, on a practical level, this openness has been hard to come by – especially in the classroom.

In her assignments for class, Cardona slips in sentences of Spanish, refusing to italicize this language that she feels belongs in her writing. She sometimes works poetry into her academic papers. She writes essays addressed to her professors about the production of knowledge and value of different kinds of input.

But the confidence to assert her own experience and knowledge in the classroom setting did not come immediately. For years, Cardona was alienated, forced to question her own capacity to succeed.

“I felt like I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I felt dumb. I felt like I was not smart,” she said. “I felt like what these people were saying was way over my head. And certain professors made me feel that way.”

It can be difficult to find writing on First Generation College students that doesn’t begin from a deficit standpoint.  First Generation students are presumed to lack “cultural capital“, access to basic information,  family support, or resilience needed to be successful.  These attributes are all, of course, contrasted with the experience, knowledge, social capital, savvy, and ambition of more privileged students who are presumed to arrive at college well-positioned to succeed.

It could be helpful to question more often what we might mean by “succeed”.  According to one recent project, at least some of the academically gifted, wealthy, and culturally savvy students of Harvard University  lack the most basic understanding of people different from themselves, but this racist ignorance has in no way stood in the way of their academic trajectories.

Because, of course, it’s those occupying the social class of these very students who make the rules about what does or doesn’t prepare one for success.  Using the wrong fork at a formal dinner?   One need go no further in that job interview.   Say ignorant things about race? Accuse those pointing this out of just playing “the race card”.

Missing the cues about table manners hurts no one, but  can mean missed opportunities to support oneself even after doing well in college.

Are there any consequences for the racism of Harvard students, when those very students will soon be hiring, sitting on college boards, and voting for candidates supporting their understanding of opportunity?


Update: Tressie McMillam Cottom dialed it in on Twitter this afternoon:


My program is beginning renewed focus on recruiting and retaining diverse students.    In these many conversations, it can be easy for even  those already committed to diversity to loose track of how much has changed since we were students ourselves.  Even on a campus as diverse as mine, the financial struggles of our students can be invisible to those of us making decisions about how we’ll structure program requirements.  We never hear from students who consider our programs but never apply, and students who leave “because I need to work for awhile” rarely stop on the way out to tell us about why they see few other choices.

So we rely on other voices.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Suzanne Mettler wrote

Ordinary young Americans who hoped college could be their route to a better future are the victims of a perfect storm of political winds

Mettler documents three main policy shifts working against low-income young people who believe in opportunity through education:

  1. While Pell grants covered 80% of the costs of a four year degree in the 70′s, they now cover only 31% of the average cost of a degree.
  2. State funding for higher ed has dwindled, leaving fewer resources for student support, even as tuition soars.
  3. Congressional deregulation has diverted financial aid to for-profits, where high tuition funnels to shareholders at tax-payers’ expense.

It is easy for faculty and staff to make vague reference to the “financial aid” available to our students without realizing how much financial aid has changed since many of us were students.  According to Mettler:

For those from the richest fifth, the annual cost of attending a public four-year college has inched up from 6 percent of family income in 1971 to 9 percent in 2011. For everyone else, the change is formidable. For those in the poorest fifth, costs at State U have skyrocketed from 42 percent of family income to 114 percent.

It’s a maxim in our program that our students can’t teach those they don’t know.

It’s growing more and more impossible to do planning in my program without knowing a great deal more about the financial constraints that many of our students now face.



On the one hand, I so appreciate this essay on a forthcoming study [likely behind a paywall for those without access to an academic library] showing that First Generation college students are likely to be more successful if someone simply explains how they might find the information that they need to navigate college.

I especially appreciate that the authors explicitly call out the fact that reluctance to talk about class differences contributes to the challenges faced by First Generation students.

Many first-generation students “struggle to navigate the middle-class culture of higher education, learn the ‘rules of the game,’ and take advantage of college resources,” they write. And this becomes more of a problem when colleges don’t talk about the class advantages and disadvantages of different groups of students. “Because U.S. colleges and universities seldom acknowledge how social class can affect students’ educational experiences, many first-generation students lack insight about why they are struggling and do not understand how students ‘like them’ can improve.”

On the other hand, the essay (and perhaps the article) continues to frame this as being about fixing the First Generation students, even while the intervention was a change in how the college worked with the students.

Their thesis — that a relatively modest intervention could have a big impact — was based on the view that first-generation students may be most lacking not in potential but in savvy about how to deal with the issues that face most college students. They cite past research by several authors to show that this is the gap that must be narrowed to close the achievement gap.

This is not a gap that is located within students.   This is a gap solidly grounded in class advantages.   Any student who succeeds in college does so because they have basic information about navigating the complex institutional norms of a college campus, career selection, and degree completion.

I will be more hopeful when articles like this stop talking about “gaps” that position First Generation students as lower than other students and start instead talking about how success in college has been available only to those with  access to  “essential but hidden information” that middle class families have long held to themselves and that universities haven’t simply taught.

I had many reactions to this short piece on colleges requiring students to attend “cultural” events (read: traditional events such as opera, theater, lectures or meals in “fancy” restaurants), in part to raise the “cultural capital” of first -generation students.

I cherish opportunities to stretch oneself as part of going to college, to have choices about how one will live one’s life that weren’t visible before.

And to be fair, this is a quick piece that doesn’t go into detail about these programs.   But still, I’m troubled by the tone of “fixing” those first generation students.

First, I’m troubled by the idea that there is a fixed set of things that can be learned by many students to gain “cultural capital” that can be leveraged to gain access to higher status social circles.   The players in higher status social circles are not awaiting with open arms to share their love of opera and restaurant meals with masses of newcomers.  Cultural capital is used to sort and exclude, not because those aiming for social mobility are inherently deficient and unworthy of inclusion,  but because those with power to make the rules have an interest in making rules that work in their favor.   Knowing opera is a mark of distinction that has value only if there are many others who do not know opera.

Second, I think about the tone of this article, that these students have to learn what is “right” and to understand that those they’ve left at home are “wrong”.  I think instead of Lisa Delpit’s insistence that we teach the culture and language of power for what it is:  Something that others will use to judge us and that we can learn to gain access to things we need, rather than something inherently better  than things in our own communities.  Do I want students to be exposed to many ways of living so that they have rich and full choices?  Of course.  And more on that below.

Third, I’m troubled by the patronizing mentions of students attending these required events misbehaving because they do not want to attend.   The implication, of course, is that these are the first-generation students acting up out of ignorance or defiance.  Perhaps.   Any professor will tell you that rude, disrespectful behavior comes from across the social class spectrum though it may vary in its sophistication.   Any sociologist will tell you that efforts to mold people into something they are not are often met with resistance.

And finally, I am troubled by the implication in this piece that privileged students come to campus as culturally sophisticated and informed people, while first-generation students are riddled with deficits.      I’m thinking of the many students I’ve had who simply have no clue that many  parents  don’t pay their kids’ tuition, that hard work often does not pay dividends, that their nanny did not in fact feel like one of the family.   I think of how many narratives students have written in my classes that speak of the shallow pain of having a car in high school that was less flashy than the cars of their peers.  I think of tales of foreign travel from young people who had never taken public transportation in their own home towns because the buses go through “those” neighborhoods.   I think of the woman who lectured a class of economically struggling younger students about how hard it was when her college grad son experimented for a time with trying to support himself.    She had no clue of the privilege of playing at being poor, sort of like one might become a vegan for a time.

But I’ve never, ever heard of a college program that set out to remediate the many ways that these students are deeply naive about the world in which live (and doing well in a class in which such things are only intellectualized doesn’t count, any more than the planners of these cultural programs would settle for the culturally deprived first gen students only taking a music appreciation class).

And frankly, to me, being ignorant about one’s own privilege is more troubling than becoming restless sitting through an opera.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers