Blaming Parents of First Generation Students for What Colleges Don’t Simply Do

There are so many problems with this essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed about the parents of First-Generation college students.

I first cringed when reading this quote from a college administrator early on:

They give him a $100 and send them off to school. ‘Here’s 100 bucks. That should last you four years. Now, go save the family.’”

As if there is no difference between being able to provide particular emotional support for the distinctive stresses of being a college student and abandoning one’s child altogether — while putting considerable pressure on them — and as if low-income parents have no idea about budgeting and the costs of living.

And the disturbing language continues:

If so-called helicopter parents typically hover above students from more elite and educated families, many first-generation college students have the opposite problem: parents who may as well be watching their children from a space station. [italics mine]

Again, the language here implies that parents have receded to isolated  “watching”, not still celebrating birthdays or holidays, nagging about late hours on home visits, taking joy in just having the child home sometimes, being proud, or maybe even making favorite meals when one comes home.

But no. Blame is the story here:

Those less-supported students also reported having higher levels of stress and anxiety than the few first-generation students who did feel supported by their parents.

There is no possible way without rigorous controlled experiments to attribute stress and anxiety among first-generation students to parent support rather than to anything else within the constellation of other differences — having no money for social events that other students take for-granted, hearing stereotypes about people like them in class, having  to work more hours than any student should, facing professors who have no idea how to provide basic academic support yet convey their impatience with you for needed it, having everyone take for granted that the upper-middle class students are the  norm and you are an outsider.

And then we got to the heart of the matter:

Marilyn Moller, director of teacher education at Rosemont College, said it’s important to remember that those phone calls [from interfering “helicopter” parents of more privileged students]– as annoying as they can be — are rarely coming from the parents of low-income and first-generation students.  “I really don’t see that as much anymore, and especially with these kinds of students,” Moller said. “I hope for phone calls. Often times, with these students, a parent may be his or her only advocate.”

And:

“The problem is that many these parents know nothing about college,” he said. “Students with parents that didn’t go to college don’t have that person they can call when they have a question. They have no map. That child is lost.”

And as I read these last statements I feel begin to feel the familiar tension in my jaw, the familiar frustration and anger and impatience.

I read that it is just taken for granted that there is nowhere at college where a student can ask basic question.

I read that no one has provided students with the basic map of what is expected of her.

I read that no one notices and steps in when a student is “lost”.

I read that no one takes responsibility for being an advocate for a student who needs an advocate to get through all of this.

But it’s the parents’ fault.

I have no idea how much of the tone of this article by Jake New is New’s own naiveté (he’s a relatively recent addition to the Inside Higher Ed line-up and seems mostly to report on things requiring less social context).   I have no idea how well this reflects attitudes of colleges more generally.

I’m just grateful that at my college, I  was told where to go with questions, told where to go when I was lost, had any number of faculty and staff I’d count as advocates, and knew that my parents were in my corner, even if they had no advice about the professor who simply refused to give me an A (and refused to explain what I needed to do differently) and could rarely afford to do more than buy me a bag of groceries once in awhile.

And I’m very grateful that at the college where I now work, we’re in constant conversation about how we can better serve our many First-Generation students.

Because we are so clear that it’s our job to support all the students who come to us with so much promise and such immense dreams.

 

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4 thoughts on “Blaming Parents of First Generation Students for What Colleges Don’t Simply Do

  1. educationlivefree August 13, 2014 / 12:11 pm

    Great post!

  2. LJ August 22, 2014 / 3:21 am

    Thank you for this post! I’m a recently-minted postdoc and a 1st generation university student, and I have spent a significant chunk of the past ten years feeling out of place among most of my colleagues. This article really validates my experiences. I love your blog!

    • janevangalen August 22, 2014 / 5:11 am

      Thanks for commenting LJ. I hope to hear more from you and about your experiences navigating all those years of college.

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