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The Challenges and Privileges of Being a First-Generation College Student

As a first-generation college student who transferred from a local community college, graduating from Georgetown University is my life’s biggest accomplishment to date. Yet as I reflect on my educational journey, my heart is filled with dismay as much as it is with pride. Graduating from high school is a privilege many youth throughout America never attain. Currently, one out of every eight public high schools that enrolls 100 students or more in America has a graduation rate of 67 percent or less, according to the latest Building a Grad Nation report. This simple statistic brings me to a place of duality as I grapple with my personal challenges and privileges as a first-generation college student.

Skilled as an electrician, my father knew very little about the sphere of higher education and the value of a college degree—a divergence that often strained our relationship as I worked diligently to attain one. My father wasn’t unique. Due to their lack of personal experience with postsecondary education, parents of first-generation college students often lack awareness of the social and economic benefits of college attendance and are less likely to attend information sessions about college, seek out financial aid information, or go on college visits.

If I wanted to attend college, I had to educate myself about schools, majors, financial aid, and scholarships. The personal pressure that I experienced as a high schooler was overwhelming. Lost about what college to choose, I erroneously selected to apply to expensive institutions with the hopes of obtaining a scholarship. Failing to see my merits awarded financially, I made what I saw to be the safe choice and attended my local community college.

At my community college I encountered many other first-generation college students, ones who had much more dire financial circumstances than my own. These students were burdened by other life obstacles, struggling to complete course work or finance even a single semester of tuition. However, our collective decision to attend community college united us. According to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation college students are much more likely to enroll in less selective two-year and four-year institutions due to concerns about college costs, financial aid, and being able to work while attending school.

Like my peers, I was perplexed about financing my education and I worked as many hours as I could to save for a four-year degree. I hosted parties at a children’s birthday party place on weekends, babysat on weeknights and mornings before class, drove families to school, worked for my community college, and tackled ten- to twelve-hour waitress shifts during my summers sometimes working until 2 or 3 AM. At one point, I balanced all of these responsibilities on top of my full-time schooling. My efforts paid off—literally—as I saved nearly $30,000 during my time as a community college student.   

At the beginning of my sophomore year I began to consider my next steps. Although I maintained an impressive academic record, I never saw myself as a standout student, a mentality that remained with me throughout college. Research shows this is a popular phenomenon: first-generation college students have less confidence in their abilities to succeed, even when they have the same level of high school preparation and achievement as their peers who have parents who attended college. Despite often joking with my community college advisor that I was simply making Georgetown $75 richer with my application fee, I am extremely blessed that I decided to take him up on his tenacious advice to apply. I’ll never be able fully to describe the moment when I was accepted to Georgetown, when all my hard work, sacrifice, and dedication manifested itself into an acceptance that still moves me to tears.

Unfortunately, many of my challenges transferred with me to Georgetown, simply taking a different shape. Georgetown students are some of the most impressive people I know, maintaining some of the best resumes, winning extremely selective accolades, and interning at esteemed companies. I seemingly paled in comparison. My time as a waitress felt like no match to other students’ internships at the World Bank, JP Morgan, and the United Nations. Instead of doing unpaid internships on Capitol Hill, I worked a minimum wage job and served as a resident assistant to help cover the enormity of expenses that came with attending such a prestigious university.

Often, I found it hard to relate to some of my peers who could turn to their parents and families to seek advice, to vent after a stressful test, or to guide them along their way. Being a student at Georgetown presented me with some of my most isolating and stressful days and often left me dubious about my decision to transfer to the university and my ability to continue matriculating.

There were plenty of moments throughout my undergraduate education when I felt tested, tried, and set up to fail—but I didn’t. While I had some challenges, I also had my own set of privileges—privileges from which a majority of other first-generation college students do not benefit.

I attended a high school where most of my peers went on to attend four-year colleges, which reflects the quality of my public school education. Offering competitive course work, Advanced Placement classes, and sufficient resources, my high school graduates 95 percent of its senior class each year. My high school experience put me at an extreme advantage. Research shows that a rigorous high school curriculum, particularly one that includes advanced math, more than doubles the chances that a first-generation college student will enroll in a four-year college. Furthermore, it mitigated any gap between my high school preparation and college readiness. By contrast, many first-generation students or students from low-income families enter college academically unprepared, forced to take remedial course work to stay afloat in their first year of school.

Demographically, first-generation college students are from the most disadvantaged groups in America: they are more likely to be female, older, black or Hispanic, have dependent children, and come from low-income communities. Independently, all these factors limit postsecondary opportunities, but they also interrelate to present a unique experience for every first-generation college student. Even if I couldn’t afford the cost of a four-year university from the inception of college, my family had a nice home, food on the table, and my father helped me financially in the ways he could. But first-generation college students who come from highly impoverished backgrounds face greater challenges as students from low-income families often experience physical, emotional, and academic stress due to poverty.  

While I recognize that my hardships shaped my college career, by no means will they be the struggles I remember most from college. I will remember my peers from community college who took a public bus to school because their family didn’t have a spare car. I will remember the inspiring individuals who worked full-time and took night classes with the hopes of a brighter future. I’ll remember the heartbreaking moment when a fellow first-generation college student under my advisement decided to leave Georgetown University, troubled by family, academic, and financial worries. Most vividly, I’ll remember the stark contrast I noticed between the students who hailed from the best private schools in America and those who came from low-income families or were the first in their families to attend college as they transitioned into Georgetown, an elite domestic institution that remains foreign for far too many underserved students.

My college experience brings me to a place of duality. I entered college with the utmost determination to graduate, and I left college with a degree that represents personal transformation, resilience, and promise. But I can’t help but think about the students who will never make it to the graduation stage. My education enlightened me to systemic injustice that prevents many first-generation students, students from low-income families, and students of color from graduating. Recognizing these barriers, my own challenges, and my own privileges, I will continue fighting for an America that provides a quality education to all students.

Jenna Douglas is an intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

She is currently seeking employment opportunities to continue her fight for educational equity and to expand access and opportunity for students attaining higher education.