I’ve been in many conversations lately about supporting first generation college students. Inevitably, these conversations turn to ideas about “supporting” these students, from creating supports for addressing presumed academic deficits to building mentorship programs to help students navigate the many unwritten rules of success in college. All are good.
Yet in all of these conversations, I’ve also be aware of the nagging realities of class on campus:
First, we are now witnessing a two tiered system of higher education in which wealthier students compete for admissions to a relatively small number of competitive elite colleges, while poor and working class students attend community colleges and less competitive state schools. No education can be complete without regular, sustained, and deliberate encounters with difference. No education can be complete without daily reminders that others experience the world on much different terms that you do.
Second, the conversations almost always assume that first-generation students are fragile hot house flowers, ready to wilt at under the pressures of school. There is almost no conversation about the multiple daily “micro” slights that remind first generation students that even after admission, they must earn their place in college in daily dances around money, status, and experiences from which one has been excluded. The thing that shut me up in college was not my lack of academic preparation; it was instead realizing in the first few weeks that so many of the other students had travelled, read things, eaten things, volunteered places that, until that point, were completely invisible to me. I knew that at any turn, my ignorance would be apparent and I’d be judged for it, even while I was doing fine on the academic work.
But there is almost no conversation about the resilience that students can develop, about the things learned from becoming keen observers of the taken-for-granted social norms, of the righteous anger that can grow over economic injustice.
So this week, I read How Much Do You Pay for College in the Chronicle, and was relieved to learn of student organizations that are fostering open and sometimes difficult conversations about class differences on campus. For example:
Middlebury could have created a support group for working-class students, the type of program found on many other campuses. But Koplinka-Loehr intentionally wanted something different—an organization that promotes dialogue between working-class and wealthy students, that “makes the conversation a lot harder” but ultimately more meaningful, he explained.
I’m encouraged by this vision of moving conversations about first-generation students’ experiences out of “support groups” behind closed meeting room doors and into the open. I’m encouraged by the idea that we might finally come to frame the conversations as being fundamentally about class and privilege and the many ways that students new to college have to fight for the right to stay — with their dignity intact.