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Column: My experience as a low-income, first generation student

March 4, 2022
<p>Mental health reporter Julian Stainback shares his insights on being a low-income, first generation student.</p>

Mental health reporter Julian Stainback shares his insights on being a low-income, first generation student.

Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

When you’re a low-income, first generation college student, there are a lot of fears that come with attending college that other people may not even think about. Of the 56 students in my high school class, there were only a few people that went on to attend a four-year university. The rest either picked up jobs, went to community college or joined the military.

One of my biggest fears of going to college was seeing whether or not the environment was right for me. I grew up in a four person household, which included my two sisters and my divorced mother. I am the oldest of my two siblings. We were considered low-income because my mother's income was below the state poverty level for a four-person household, which is $55,500 for 2022 annually. That alone made college a difficult choice because they looked up to me as their role model.

The second fear I had was choosing a major, which is common when getting accepted. However, choosing a major could be tougher because I had to choose between something I wanted to do or something that would make money. There were people in my family who aggressively expressed their opinion on what I should do in my life, especially when salary was thrown in the picture.

Because I excelled in math and science, my parents thought that I would want to become an engineer. Growing up, I have always heard how STEM majors lack diversity in their fields. This, accompanied with the pressure of money, is what forced me to go into the engineering discipline.

I went to a school called Davis Aerospace Technical High School, a school that’s not commonly known in the Detroit area like Cass, King or Renaissance. When I told people I went to Davis, they would say “I’ve never heard of that school.” This didn’t surprise me because it was a STEM-based school with a strong focus on aerospace engineering. It wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. However, it did provide me with the stepping stones to the engineering field.

When I got accepted to Michigan State, a tremendous amount of pressure came with it. I was worried that I would not be pleasing my parents if I went to college and found out it wasn’t for me. Upon entering MSU, the culture was much different. I felt like an imposter among the student population, unsure if I’d fit in.

This was the case in the majority of my classes, where there were hardly any students of color. I found it very difficult to manage my life without the support of both my parents. In my first year, I struggled with getting personal and educational needs. Because my mom didn’t make sufficient income, I was left to make money on my own.

Getting a job on campus was tough, I felt like I didn’t have that much experience. I only worked two part-time jobs while I was in high school as a busboy and retail associate. But it felt like it wasn’t sufficient enough to land a job. These road bumps alone landed me on academic probation. My mother was not too happy about that and it took a traumatizing blow to my self-esteem and I began questioning whether or not I wanted to continue.

In my sophomore year, I changed my major to journalism. This came with another obstacle: getting an internship. The School of Journalism requires all of its students to complete at least one credit of an internship in order to graduate with a degree in journalism. I found it extremely difficult to find an internship throughout my years in college. I applied for about 15 internships and each one I was rejected.

Over the past few years, I felt like an outcast. I felt like there was no community for me and other first-generation students. Surrounded by students who aren't first-generation gave me a sense of indifference, like the world was just staring at me.

As I reflect on my experiences as a first-generation student, I realized that I am not my past or my circumstance. Being at Michigan State provided me with a few resources that I can pass on to prospective students who share the same background similar to mine. It can be challenging to be the first one in your family to make that leap into college. With the right support, you can achieve anything.

There are some resources available for students who identify as first generation. One of them is the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions, or OCAT. OCAT’s main goal is to support students in their navigation of the many different cultures around the world. You can find the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions in the Student Services Building, room 339.

Another helpful resource is TRiO Student Support Services. TRiO provides resources such as personal advising and counseling for first-generation college students. Last year, TRiO and the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative, or NSSC, earned MSU its acceptance into the First-Gen Forward Cohort. You can learn more about TRiO by visiting here or by visiting their office on the second floor of Bessey Hall.

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