Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Column: 1st-generation students are overcomers, so learn from them

First-generation students are proud and strong. While first-gen students face struggles, it's important to recognize that this pandemic has created an opportunity for solidarity between all students.

November 13, 2020

When I received the email that said my student account had been updated, I was eating lunch in Midland High’s hottest social spot, Eyeball Alley. I logged into my portal and saw the congratulations message and felt a weight drop from my shoulders. I was able to contain my excitement, but it was everyone else that went into a frenzy. It just so happened that the student leadership class had set up a table to promote something or other, and of course, they had a megaphone.

I showed one of my friends the message and, instantaneously, she jumped up and grabbed the megaphone.

“Hey everyone,” she said into it, all eyes on her. “Jacob May just got into Michigan State!” 

A big smile adorned my face, and as people congratulated me, I was overcome with pride. I was proud of myself for having worked hard to get that acceptance letter, proud that I set myself on the track to become the first person in my family with a college degree, and proud of my family for raising me to be an overcomer.

This week was First-Generation Appreciation week, and although it can be challenging, I'm proud that being first-gen is part of my identity. For me, and I’m sure for other first-gen students, getting that acceptance letter is the culmination of all the energy that had to be put in just to feel like everyone else. Many of us come from working-class homes in which grades weren’t the most important thing on your plate. At times, you get more worried about what is (or isn’t) on your plate, in a more literal sense. But tagging along with that worry is a hope for a better, more stable future and a drive to make it happen.

And so far, it hasn’t been easy.

There comes pressure with being the first. It feels like you have to have everything figured out and that you have to execute it in a perfect manner. I tend to get worried when I stray away from my plans, so when things start to go south, I have to craft a new plan right away. I changed my major already this year, and throughout the process, I was left stressed and confused. I get worried that I can’t make progress toward that better future if I don't have a solid plan. After all, this is what I worked so hard for, so if I fail, it feels like everything is on the line. Other people want to see me succeed in getting a degree, too, like my parents and grandparents. The last thing that I want to do is disappoint them.

There’s also a nagging feeling that makes me feel like I simply don’t belong. Part of my experience as a first-gen student has been looking at the people around me and seeing their perfect teeth. It’s no secret that lower-class students — those that might not be able to afford braces — aren’t set up for educational success and face barriers to getting into college, especially when admissions are selective. According to an MSU Office of Planning & Budgets report on incoming students in the fall 2019 semester, only two out of 10 students in that class were first-gen. It can be unnerving to look around and see that most of my peers have perfect teeth, knowing that they more than likely won't be able to relate to my experiences. I see people with the newest tech, and I have to admit, the materialism in society gets to me. When everyone else has an iPhone and AirPods, I want to have them too. But it can be hard to fit in this way; in the same way that I've had to manage unlucky circumstances for a college education, I've had to work for the same luxuries that other people get handed to them.

At the same time that I wish to blend in, I recognize that there is beauty in being first-gen. For me, that’s getting to row the boat on my own and hopefully clear a path for the generation behind me. I like to think of it as an adventure because everything is new. I’ve never been able to ask my parents about their experience living in dorms, walking around campus or attending classes. I couldn’t ask them for tips on how to make friends while I’m in college because they don’t have that same experience that the majority of your parents did. I’m sure that at some points along my college journey, my parents were just as lost as I was, like throughout the application process, when I filed the FAFSA or signed up for housing. I didn’t really get a lot of advice going into the semester, but I’ve enjoyed making it my own, unique experience. 

Now put a pandemic on top of all the normal stressors created for first-gen students. For me, this is just another obstacle. I've told you my story, now please take a lesson from it: Just because things get hard doesn't mean it's time to give up.

Being a first-gen student is about taking things as they come and being glad to do it. It's about keeping an open mind and adapting to new situations. Everyone has shared in this new reality created by COVID-19 and no one is enjoying it. We know what it's going to take to save the lives of our neighbors and beat the pandemic, so why aren't we making every effort to do so? It's time to put first-gen level effort into overcoming this obstacle. And it's not going to be easy.

We're all feeling pressure and confusion due to COVID-19. We can all relate to taking on the beast of online college, so instead of focusing on our differences, it’s essential that we build solidarity around this experience. I know that it feels like our professors are assigning too much work and that it’s crazy that some of them won’t even record their lectures. I know it’s crazy that no matter how many times ASMSU advocates for those things to change, the university might never make our interests their first priority. It's ludicrous that we're just now seeing the worst of the pandemic. It's going to take a combined effort to find the light at the end of the tunnel because this pandemic is not over yet. It's the same old message that has been pushed since March, but it's time to put on your mask, social distance and isolate. Be considerate of other people. I know it can be hard, but this is a necessary adversity. Please recognize this as a rare opportunity to relate to one another and work in union toward a common goal.

That being said, I’m proud to invite the whole Spartan community to join me in an age-old working-class tradition: Rolling up our sleeves and getting it done, no matter how hard things get.

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