I had to Google the term first generation college student to make sure that term was even applicable to me. The is some confusion over the term and by some standards I would not qualify because both of my parents as well as all of my grandparents and some of my aunts and uncles attended a higher education institution in some way or another. I am proud of all the things my family has achieved and I hesitated to call myself a first generation college student, knowing there are families only dreamed of having the college experiences my family has had.
That is until I realized that the summer orientation program for first year students at my university fell in the middle of the summer when I was working at a camp for children and adults with special needs to save up for the mini-fridge every college freshman covets. I called my mother and we started figuring out how I was going to get from the camp, an hour and a half northeast from my school. Once we decided that she would drive the hour and 40 min trip to the camp to pick me up and drop me off at the train station in the next town over, where I would catch an hour train ride to my college’s campus, I switched gear to figure out how to take the time off work. Every hour counted and I could not afford to lose the whole two days of pay the orientation would cost me. The way this camp operated we had an hour-long break each day and one 36 hour break per week. I arranged to switch 36 hour breaks with a fellow counselor, so that mine would fall as close to the weekend as possible. Technically I still had to take a few hours off, since no one was allowed to go on break when the campers were arriving or packing up to leave camp, but my check would only be short a few tens of dollars.
When my mother came to get me I was exhausted. I’d watched as each of my fellow counselors took their break to catch up on the woefully short hours of sleep we got each camp session. Even though I was exhausted I was excited about this new adventure I was about to embark upon. I followed the signs that told me where to register and how to get my room assignment. I looked around. We were given an itinerary with numerous planned activities. I looked around for the person who looked like me in my group. I did not see her. I participated in every tour and ice-breaker. I listened for the person who sounded like me, but I could not hear her. I explained that I was working over the summer when I sat down next to them in the dining hall and they just looked at me. I told them where I was from and they asked if there were gangs at my school. I realized these people would try but they would never know where I was coming from. When all of the obligatory activities were over we were allowed to go to our rooms and then there were a list of optional things we could participate in. I wanted to go to those events. I planned to go, but instead I woke up in a hard plastic chair in my room in the middle of the night and I realized just how exhausted I had been. The next day I was quieter and smaller. I did not try quite so hard to make friends because I doubted they would ever be able to go beyond the superficial.
On the last day I watched as parents descended upon the campus and everyone loaded their things into cars. I packed my backpack and walked to the bus station. When my mother picked me up she asked me how the orientation went and I answered with an obligatory smile. It was then that I realized exactly what it would mean to be a first generation college student. It would mean a system that was not set up for me. It would mean parents with experiences so unlike my own that, though they would try, would not be very helpful when it came to figuring out how to navigate that system. It would mean being surprised to be last in the class’ privilege exercise because I knew there were so many more people with so much less than me, then realizing that those people did not make it. It would mean being the de facto authority on all things urban, Black, and Detroit. It would mean teetering between two worlds. My parents, desperately pushing me out of their world of dropping out, teenage pregnancy and missed opportunities and the higher educational system, which begrudgingly let me in theirs. It would mean that I was going to have to find my own path because there wasn’t one already laid out for me. It would mean much more autonomy than my peers. It would mean independence, self-sufficiency, determination and self-efficacy. And so today if you ask me, I make no mistake in proclaiming my identity as a first generation college student because the journey would not have been nearly the same if I was not.