A year ago almost to the day, I experienced the death of a student for the second time as a professional. I was in my second year as a professional, and in my first year working at a small private school in Saint Louis, Missouri. The student in question was beloved across campus, and the loss was one that shook the campus community to its very core.
As is usual for me, after I got home for the night I called my parents to debrief the situation. I had lost another student the previous year to a tragic accident, and had dealt with several suicidal ideations and other crises. As I was debriefing the day for my parents, they made a comment that has stuck with me ever since:
“When you told us you wanted to do this for a living, we never imagined this.”
I’m a first-generation college student. My mother took a few courses at our local Community College, but never found anything that spoke to her enough to finish. My father earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Phoenix when I was in late Elementary School, because the company he worked for encouraged him to do so. So, when I first told my parents I wanted to go to graduate school, their response was something along the lines of, “Good luck, kid.”
This isn’t to say my parents didn’t support my choice; they’ve been incredibly supportive of my journey and my decisions. It was more that no one in our family had ever earned a Bachelor’s degree, let alone to even talking about going on to earn a Master’s.
Throughout my graduate school experience and my experience as a professional, there have been times when being first-gen contributes to some pretty serious imposter syndrome. Whenever students ask me questions that I can’t answer, I wonder if my colleagues who come from more educated families would know the answer. I can’t relate to students who are experiencing pressure because everyone in their family has gone to a certain institution, or studied a certain thing, and so on.
In other ways, I’m fortunate. I was having a conversation with a new RA during training and told her I was first-generation (as well as two other professionals in our office) and watched her face light up, and she quite literally screamed and told me how inspiring I was. I can relate uniquely to students who have no idea how to navigate the Financial Aid process; who are terrified of going to office hours or asking questions in class; or who just need someone to talk to when their familial support system might not understand what they’re going through.
Because this month is Careers in Student Affairs Month, I urge my first-gen colleagues to share with your students your story as a first-generation college student when the opportunity arises. I sometimes hesitate to disclose my status as first-gen out of fear that my students will discount my experience or view me as less expert than my colleagues who may come from more educated families; and yet, the truth is often the exact opposite. Students want to see themselves in the staff and faculty they work and learn with. This is perhaps even more critical for our first-gen students. For me, knowing that there were staff and faculty at my institution who had been where I was and succeeded was instrumental in motivating me through the days when it felt like I was a total fraud; like I would never fit in on my campus.
Our field is one that comes with so many unexpected challenges and experiences. We joke about “Other Duties as Assigned,” and I know that to those who don’t work in Higher Ed, I often sound like I’m speaking another language made up almost entirely of acronyms and abbreviations. So, it is vital that we invite our first-gen students into the fold. Teach them our language. Empower them. Most importantly, help them feel like the dream of a college degree is attainable. Just because you’re the first in your family doesn’t mean you should struggle every step of the way.
It’s Careers in Student Affairs Month, share your story! #ACPAWhatsYourWhy #SApro #SACareers
Kristi is a proud first-generation college student originally from Southern California. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Sonoma State University and a Master’s Degree in Student Affairs and Higher Education from Indiana State University. She now serves as a Residential Hall Coordinator at Maryville University in Saint Louis Missouri where she lives with her two cats, Sloan (named for Mark Sloan from Grey’s Anatomy) and Sirius (named for Sirius Black from Harry Potter.) She is an unashamed nerd (Jeopardy is a spectator sport for her), a huge music buff (she puts her Spotify premium membership to good use by discovering at least one new artist or band each day) and a little bit of a grandma (she is known for gifting her friends with various cross stitch pieces and is a self-proclaimed stress baker.)