How do I (fill in the blank)?

This morning, I was interviewed about my experiences as a first-generation student in relation to careers.  I can’t help but reflect on my interview and notice a theme.

As a first-generation student, I come from humble beginnings; raised in a working class family where my father works as automotive technician and my mother as a book-keeper.  We had what I call a chaotic life; something in which I derive my voice and experiences.  There were times when we could afford name brand clothes and times when we went to rummage sales; times when I could pick my favorite cereal from the grocery store and times when I had to eat whatever was in the refrigerator.  I was asked in my interview to explain how I learned to be successful as a first-generation student.

It is not just about the person who pushed me or the person who I define as your mentor (even though I mentioned them).  It is about the self-reflection process of the path I took.  The theme of my interview today was about cultural capital and I define this in terms of class.

I did not have access to resources to help me navigate my first-year.  I did not advocate for my needs because in childhood and adolescence, I was not fostered to do so.  I lacked voice in naming my experiences until I was in Graduate school.  During my undergraduate experience, I did not have cultural capital in higher education.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to San Diego for a forum at the Hotel del Coronado. As a reward to myself, I took a spa day, something I never have done before.  I laugh because I had to ask what I could use and what I had access to in the spa (I’m talking the wash clothes with slices of cucumber and the steam room).  This is not something my working class background offered me and because of my college education, I now can advocate for myself by asking these questions and inserting my voice in the conversation.

So how do I (we) help first-generation students advocate their needs?  How do they understand the unwritten rules of higher education? How do we ask them to insert their voice in dialogues?

  • Push them to ask questions.
  • Reward these behaviors in and outside of the classroom.
  • Share our first-generation experiences with them.
  • Use first-generation dialogues in a positive light, and create a culture of exploratory students.
  • Create opportunities for them to practice questions (i.e. mock interviews, 1:1 discussions, partnerships with departments on campus).
  • Get ready to confront this issues because first-generation students will increase!

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