First Gen Students and Assumptions of Classlessness.

creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by kevin dooley

My campus has a new Equity and Inclusion Facebook group. This morning, I noticed that a colleague who has an excellent reputation for work in education and social justice had posted a link (without comment) to an article from the Cal Berkeley’s Alum publication: The Struggle to Be First: First-Gen Students May Be Torn Between College and Home.

It’s a relatively long piece for an alum publication, and author Alina Tugend has talked to authors who have done research about First Generation students and contacted programs in other places.  I believe that she set out to write a comprehensive and empathetic piece.

And still, I’ve read and reread the article multiple times and cannot find a single reference to any strengths that First Generation  — or their families — bring to the college experience beyond mention that one young woman is “diligent”.

First Gen students are portrayed here (kindly, to be sure), as exotic “others” who experience college as “going to a different country” and need “help”, who feel like “you can’t fit in”.

In short, it’s an article about how social class complicates access to college, without ever acknowledging class until the very end.  Almost as an aside after a litany of many ways that First Gen students are on the brink of failure, the author mentions a study showing that open discussion of social class led to to more academic and social engagement than did more generic discussion of obstacles to success in college.

So: talking openly about social class may enable to First Gen students to frame their experiences within broader contexts of inequality, yet it takes pages of patronizing language about “spelling everything out” and “helping” students and the recitation of data on drop-out rates and disengagement before we even learn that.

To be clear, the author has taken an unacknowledged stance here:  First Generation students need remediation and help, and she invests pages on how this might be done. Only as a side-note does she hint that perhaps we could start by simply acknowledging that more is at work here than naive parents and timid students  — but also formidable class barriers to education at the very border of middle class membership.

So I’ve been thinking about tweaking the language in the piece to acknowledge the dailiness of living as a classed being at the borders of class mobility.  For example:

  • Yes, parents may “fear that they’ll [their children] will evolve into someone the family no longer recognize”.  They also likely know the real judgment and disdain they experience in encounters with highly educated people, so it may not be so much fear as informed expectation.
  • First Gen students may “feel like you don’t fit in”.  Yes.  But this is not a psychological quirk.  First Gen students are reminded that they don’t belong multiple times a day, from the awkward pauses in conversations with privileged peers who know nothing about lives different from than their own,  to the necessity of navigating rules that are never spelled out (what the article refers to the “hidden curriculum”, without ever raising the question of who, why, or how it’s hidden if it’s important for success).
  • Yes, First Generation may need professors to “explain everything”, just as more privileged peers have had “everything” explained to them about college success since birth.   I’ve yet to see an article suggesting that there’s something almost pitiful about privileged students calling home for advice about course selection, internships, or how to negotiate one’s way out of the program requirements or bad grades.   Yet when First Generation students expect faculty and staff to actually explain what is needed for success, they’re described as exotic others in an alum magazine.

Besides taking issue with what’s written here, I also take issue with what is not.   Parents are rendered in single dimensions and are represented as speaking in only single sentences of disapproval to their children: they are fearful, naive, distant, seemingly selfish.  But they likely also are proud, loving, confused and ashamed that they can’t do more. They’re likely also sometimes funny and at least some make sure that they cook their kids’ favorite meals when they come home from college.   But we rarely read about the parents of First Gen students in ways beyond framing them as part of the problem.

There’s no mention here of real institutional barriers like rising tuition and decimated financial aid (it’s mentioned only in passing that one student is working three jobs).

There’s no mention of the First Gen/ Low-income student groups who are insisting that campuses have open and ongoing conversations about class privilege, not just remediation of the “needs” of First-Gen students.

There’s no mention of how elite parents put pressure on admissions officers to admit their under-qualified children — and certainly no mention of how campuses then provide special services to address the “needs” of those who may not have met admissions requirements.

Of course poor and working class parents may not understand the place of the Ultimate Frisbee club and study abroad.  And of course that can leave students feeling torn. But it is legislators, Boards of Regents, those managing college endowments, and those setting policies about financial aid who create very real obstacles to many First Gen students being able to travel or be involved in student life.

Yet no one is talking about how limited those power brokers are in their understanding of the the needs of First Gen students.

Ms. Tugend says nothing about her own class background here — authors rarely do.  Yet she has her own Wikipedia page, from which I could search to find that someone with the same name as her father received a scholarship at Berkeley in 1948. Ms. Tergund herself has a degree from Berkeley and two from Yale.

And in her article, I don’t find a single acknowledgement of the strengths of any of those she writes about beyond descriptions of one young woman as “diligent”.

Even while she writes kindly of those she seems to know so little about.

Last Day: First Generation Students Telling Their Stories

First Gen las supporters

My team and I have been in awe of the support we’ve gotten from over 160 people for our project of creating Digital Stories with First Generation students across the country.

The funding goal of $10,000 was set by our coaches who believed that “we’d find success” at that goal.  Our coaches are great, but they don’t know how deeply so many of us care about First Gen students, access, voice, and advocacy.

We blasted past their first goal for us in just 5 days.  They’d thought that would take 4 weeks.

We’d love to blast past this goal today.  Every dollar we raise over the $10,000 will go to building out the mobile storytelling lab and covering the actual costs of the workshops.

Will you help to put us over the top today?

The site closes at 11:59 PST.

My thanks in advance for sharing this post and donating even $5 (or more, if that education = success thing has worked out f or you).

UPDATE:  We’ve blasted past the goal set for us and are elated that generous supporters are continuing to build this community!  We’re well on the way to covering more of the full costs of our workshops!  Please join us!

Only Three Days Left, and an Uphill Climb

First Gen final donors  8)

Gentle Readers,

We had a wonderful first week on our First Generation Students: Telling Our Stories.

We’ve continued to get donations that represent generosity from a full range of income levels.

And now we have only three days to go, and we’re still 20% short of the goal we set after blasting through the first cautious goal that our fund-raising coaches had set for us.

We need to have a great three days to be able to launch this project. (Don’t tell our coaches, but we’d love to blast through this new goal too!).

Have you been thinking of donating, but just haven’t yet?  Now’s the time.

I’m thinking, also, that readers of this blog know many people who were First Generation or who support First Generation Students.   It would be wonderful if you’d share this link with them.

We cannot wait to launch this project.

And first, we must raise the funds.

Thanks so much for your support and your sharing.

First Generation Students: Telling our Stories

They Don’t Know Our Stories


Jane Presenting 2 (2)I had the enormous privilege of working last week with Joe Lambert, the founding director of the Center for Digital Storytelling.   We ran a workshop for 9 people who had come from across the country to learn to create digital stories.  They gathered so that they might better know themselves and be known.  They told rich and moving stories of every day life, of those they love, and of transformative moments in their lives.  They worked with an intensity that is common in these workshops to create a story in which their audience would see, hear and feel the many layers of their stories.

On the first morning, Joe said “We no longer live among those who know our stories”.

I thought about how relevant that statement is for First Generation Students who arrive on campus as strangers, whose lives and experiences are not represented in the books or class discussions, who may learn as they realize their differences to simply stay silent.

I believe strongly that knowing the stories of all student enriches everyone.  I believe that we learn more about the range of human experiences,  more about opportunity and obstacles to success, more about making higher education accessible.

I’ve written here before  about our First Generation Students: Telling our Stories project.

We have 10 days to go, and still almost $2500 to raise.

We’d love to blast through that goal to take our workshops to more campuses, at no cost to the students or those who support them.

We love generous donations of $5.   We have loved the generosity of those for whom success in school has translated into economic security.   We have been gratified when people have shared our project with others who would want to be part of creating First Generation Student Stories.

We cannot wait to see what the next 10 days brings.  We know that we’ll be hearing rich stories of Being First.

Will you join us?






We’re at the half way mark of our Crowd Funding campaign to launch our project of creating and curating First Generation Students’ Digital Stories.   After an amazingly successful first week, we doubled our goal.    As of this moment, we’re well on our way to achieving that new more ambitious goal with the support of almost 100 generous souls who have donated $5, $50, and sometimes much more.  We’d love to blast past this new goal, too, to more fully cover the actual costs of the project.

We are beyond excited that this project is going to happen.

We’d love for you to  be a part of of this adventure.  More information here.