TOPICS > Education

First-generation students face unique struggles at elite colleges

April 9, 2015 at 6:05 PM EDT
First-generation college students often face more challenges than their peers, financially and culturally. At Ivy League schools, the difference can be even more dramatic. The New York Times explores how a conference at Brown University has helped bring them together.

Produced, reported and edited by Natalia V. Osipova, with additional photography courtesy of Stanley Stewart.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a segment from our partners at The New York Times.

Last month, students from some of the nation’s most selective colleges gathered at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Known as first gens, or generation, these students, who are in the first in their family to attend college, face unique challenges amid the privilege and opportunity of elite educations.

STANLEY STEWART: For me, a first generation college student is…

ANAMARIA MENESES-LEON: Everything is a little bit harder.

JENNIFER TELSCHOW: A great privilege, but also a higher responsibility.

TRAVIS REGINAL: There is not a lot of room for error.

DESTIN SISEMORE: I’m the second person ever from my high school to go to an Ivy League school.

MANDEEP SINGH: My dad works as a taxi driver.

KIMBERLY ROSA: It means that I’m still able to do just as well as my peers who have maybe had better resources.

STANLEY STEWART: Sort of like a blessing and a curse.

For me personally, making friends at Brown was a little bit difficult just because I had never been surrounded by people who were this rich in my entire life, because you’re sort of wondering, OK, like, what do I have in common with these people? Like, do I sort of truly belong?

I do feel like first generation college students do need support that is different from the support that is typically offered for students. There’s often times a lot of assumptions about what we know, that we know how to go and talk to professors, that we know how to network, that we know how to use office hours, that our parents know everything that’s going on.

So much of my life here is like focusing on classes and these esoteric authors that my family isn’t used to talking about. Oftentimes, I will call home and the only thing that we have to talk about is, how’s the weather?

On the other hand, I think there are times where I feel really proud. Like, I will call my mom back home, and I will be like, you will not believe — this kid doesn’t know how to do their own laundry. How do you go so long without knowing how to do your own laundry? And I just feel really proud because I know how to take care of myself, right, and that’s something that my family has taught me to do.

DESTIN SISEMORE: In some ways, I’m privileged as a first gen student because I’m white. But class privilege is a different issue.

I didn’t want to paint myself as being different from other students. That’s a hard thing to admit. Being first gen and being gay means that I’m coming from a background that a lot of students aren’t. I had to get a job on campus pretty quickly. The university bought me a suit junior year because I did have to do these interviews and I didn’t have access to the money to buy that suit.

Literally, whether or not you get the job could depend on how well your clothes fit you. And it’s really a hard ordeal to approach that, to be confident, and to be able to speak on the same degree that everything else is speaking. And you need to be comfortable with how you look.

ANAMARIA MENESES-LEON: When I compare myself with students with Brown, sometimes, I get angry at them if they complain about being really busy. And I know that everyone is really busy here.

I think, like, well, they don’t work. They’re busy like improving their resume, you know? My first job was actually working as a food server in the student dining services. While I was making salads, my dorm mates were in the sciences library finishing out their problem sets for chemistry.

I’m originally from Columbia. My family moved here when I was 6. If I’m like to trying to conceal my first gen identity, I don’t mention work. I don’t mention my family life, really. If they ask me where I’m from, I say New Jersey, because New Jersey — like, anyone can be from New Jersey.

Sometimes, I avoid telling professors about my background, because I just don’t want to seem like a burden and I don’t want them to pity me, because I think I’m really capable. So I often just act as if I’m just like any other student that goes here.

STANLEY STEWART: 1vyG started a project between friends who wanted to explore what it meant to be first generation college students. It actually is pretty surprising to see how much 1vyG has grown now to this conference that’s spanning all across the Ivy League.

The one thing I really hope that people get out of the conference is the feeling that they’re not alone, because they aren’t.

JENNIFER TELSCHOW: I remember the first time I told my mom about the job that I got on campus. I was making around 14, $15 an hour. And she was just so shocked that I was already making what she took years to be able to make.

LILIANA SAMPEDRO: For the most part, I am proud that I’m a first generation student. My grandma, I learned, is illiterate. So knowing just like how far my family has come from that is very, very humbling.

STANLEY STEWART: Ever since I was a freshman, I have been saving up to be able to afford my mom’s plane ticket here. None of my family has ever been able to afford to visit Brown. And so probably the only time that they will be on the campus is when I graduate. I don’t know if everyone has to think about their life in college that way.

MANDEEP SINGH: It’s a reality that these institutions were created by white people and created for white people at the time. And so white privilege, yes, it does exist. But now, when you have a lot of people of color, a lot of first gen folk coming into these schools in large numbers, that privilege is being challenged.

TRAVIS REGINAL: What makes me most proud of being a first generation college student definitely has to be the empathy I have, which is one of the big issues in America, is that there is an empathy gap. And I think puts me in a position unique to kind of push for a lot of change that needs to happen.