The Kessler Scholars Program is in a two-year pilot circulating around first-generation college students, and my year was the first year with a cohort of all first-generation students. This identity was not something that I was aware I carried when I came to this university. No, my parents had never gone to college, and yes, I was going to attend the University of Michigan. I didn’t understand the significance of these facts.
My first year here was, as expected, a whirlwind. I met multitudes of people from different backgrounds, engaged with professors who were actually passionate about their work, and found out what it truly means to stay up all night studying. I was in awe of the school for everything it offered. I didn’t realize how “different” my experience was.
I joined quite a few first-generation student organizations; I felt as though the identity was self-empowering. Yes I am a female in the STEM field at the University of Michigan, but no, my father wasn’t a professor and my mother wasn’t the head of directors at some firm. This form of life isn’t prevalent back home in the northernmost corner of the Upper Peninsula. We all work hard, long hours, and simply carry on with life as it is. There are no protests or opinions, and everyone generally ignores politics- at least in my experience. At Michigan however, it was a whole different ballfield. I became familiar with the idea of feminism, and began to realize what it really means, and I embraced my first-gen identity.
I saw those who, sobbing over homework, called their parents for comfort. I called my mom twice- once because I didn’t know if I had health insurance, and the second because I didn’t know how to transfer money from one bank to another. I saw those who, in the midst of failing a paper, sent it to their parents who would therefore look it over and tell them where the grammar mistakes were. I still don’t believe my dad knows the difference between “there” and “their,” and I love him for it. I didn’t have the support that other students had, and I refrained from asking my parents for advice simply because I knew they wouldn’t have any.
Regardless, it wasn’t until I joined the Kessler team as a summer intern that I began to notice the underlying differences between first-gen students and those whose parents have a degree. I had to do research specific to first-gen students as a point of reference for portions of our program design, and it was there that I saw the statistics such as “90% of low-income first-generation students don’t graduate within 6 years” and “only 11% of first-generation students obtain a Bachelor’s degree.” It was these papers that made me realize how high the odds are stacked against us, but it was also here where I found my passion lies. Yes, I am a first-generation college student, but that is not all I am. I am a girl with a craving for knowledge, a girl who is building a future, and a girl who is proud.