This week I was catching a red eye from LAX to DC with an old classmate, and we spied a very anxious, fussy mom traveling with her daughter. The daughter was wearing a Howard sweatshirt (even though it was still too warm on either coast) and had the look of a freshmen. My traveling partner noted that she was probably going to DC to start her school year. We were getting old.
We ran into the mom–daughter at our gate and made small talk that visibly eased mom's anxiety as we answered her rapid fire questions:
“You both went to Howard?”—As we live and breath.
“She’s in ‘the quad.’ Is that good?—The Best/The Worst.
“Can I come to the pinning ceremony?”—You should! The speech is really good.
I was reminded of my own experience being dropped off on Howard’s campus those few-ish years ago as a first generation college student hailing from middle-of-nowhere Gladys, Virginia (graduating class of 105). Everyone was very proud, but nobody knew what to do or what to expect. Having no familiar domain, my mom bemoaned the stitch count of the best twin XL sheets we could find, while my father napped before the drive back.
FGCS (First Generation College Students) are overwhelmingly minorities and a lot of people forget that they exist, especially in places and campuses that are home to the purported “black elite.” These students are struggling to graduate on time, or at all, while finding the cultural shock overwhelming in most cases. Only 27 percent of first generation students are walking across the stage in 4 years, compared to 42 percent of their counterparts. The graduation gap is more disturbing.
In an effort to equip other FGCS with a few more tools than I had starting out, I’ll give you some tips learned by experience upfront. Hopefully, they’ll be beneficial during your college tenure, and in the long run.
1. See Yourself as a Budding Professional, Not Just a Student
You’ve got this far by following the rules and hitting the books. Excellent. But now, it’s not just about doing “what you’re supposed to.” Now, it’s about strategically putting yourself in position to obtain your career goals, for you. When choosing your major, think long term. If you’re majoring in psychology, are you prepared to get a masters, or a doctorate? If you’re majoring in English, do you want to be a writer, or a teacher? You want be an actor, are you going to plays and getting familiar with the local professional community?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the ‘80s or ‘90s where just being black with a degree got you a "good" job. Identify the goal as specifically as possible, and then operate around it. You obviously have the efficiency to make things work, so this part will be right up your alley.
Plus, intern as often as possible. Even for free. There’s nothing worse than getting your shiny new diploma and interviewing for an entry level job that needs “five years experience.” Freshmen year is a great time to start thinking about these things so you can be ahead.
2. Find Your Tribe: For Yourself and Your Pockets
I grew up as an athlete, but stumbled into the sport of forensics (a competition that’s a mixture of acting, public speaking and debate) in middle school. My love of, and success in, the sport afforded me a partial scholarship when I decided to further my education. Getting paid to do something I would have done for free, while making friends and flying around the country not having to run one lap around a track? Say no more, fam.
But what I found interesting was that even though the scholarship was available after one year of stellar competition, no one really knew the team existed. People were just leaving money on the table. I learned there were lots of organizations like this: mock trail, swimming, lacrosse, bowling, the ROTC Officer Programs.
Studies show that FGCS lack a sense of communal identity. Take a look at all of the options on your campus and go to as many interest meetings as possible. You never know where you may have a hidden talent, how you could get paid for it, or where you may meet your tribe.
3. Find a Mentor
To be honest, it’s scandalous that colleges are just now starting to offer mentorship programs and taking specific initiatives to ensure first generations don’t fall through the cracks. These programs can be found at places like VCU—whose population consists of 1/3 first generation students—and spreading throughout the Ivy Leagues. It'll be exciting when HBCUs take an aggressive approach by implementing initiatives to address these students. But until then…
People who are used to having professionals around, have unconsciously had this cultural information available to them. You may not have that information now, but it’s not that hard to get when you're young. Lookup a professor or local person whose career closely reflects what you would like yours to be in the future. Send them an email, or speak in person if possible, asking if they would have the time to meet with you. It doesn’t matter if they’re a radio personality or in STEM.
People love to take a young kid under their wing, and you need the information they have. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t respond, just go down the list until does.
BONUS: Always visit your professor during office hours. This is something discouraged in high school, but expected in college. Through the power of office hours, I once saw a girl talk her way from a C to an A- on a test.
4. Seek Out and Use ALL of Your Medical Resources (Therapy)
It was, ironically, an interaction with a white student majoring in African American studies at my HBCU who taught me this lesson. He casually mentioned, “Yeah, I was talking to my therapist and…” I had never heard mention of a therapist in real life, let alone a 19-year-old having one.
“You go to a therapist?” I was alarmed pondering the implications of a white man in therapy at a black college.
“I mean, yeah. I’ve always gone to a therapist. It really helps work out my thoughts. Plus, It’s completely free since we’re students. All you have to do is sign up.”
Without knowing your story personally, if you’re a first generation student you’ve likely spent endless hours relying on and disciplining yourself to set, then meet, your own standards of success. It’s not uncommon that you were relied upon to be extra responsible at an early age while dealing with whatever economic or familial challenges that could be on the table.
“Many first-generation students may come to develop two different identities—one for home and another for college," says Linda Banks-Santilli an Associate Professor at Wheelock College.
Even with help from your support systems (i.e. your parents, who didn’t know that “new math,” but tried, or your grandma, who couldn't drive, but made sure you got a ride to ball practice), you’re probably carrying a lot of baggage you’re not even aware of yet. Mental Health in the black community is a widely discussed topic, with unrelenting themes of weakness and questions of necessity. But the reality is that many people are out here getting emotional counseling without having experienced a quarter of what you're juggling. So, why not?
If it’s included in your tuition, it’s a resource to be taken advantage of. You deserve mental and emotional stability, just like everyone else.
You’re going to hear a lot of this, if you haven't already. The nuances of joining them have been written about: What are they? Should you try to join? Which one’s “the best”?
I’m not here to tell you that.
What I’m here to tell you, instead, is that you have a benefit in this area because you’re not following a legacy, you’re building one. You can look at these organizations and the people in them with a completely objective eye.
Early freshmen year, five of us were at the train station. Maybe because of the bags and the confusion on our faces we quickly formed an alliance and decided we needed to get a cab. A driver came up and said he would take us to Howard, for $7 dollars a piece ($25 dollars for a 10 minute ride). I was about to pass over the money, having never took a cab, but it was the New Yorker who completely flipped over the attempted scammery. As is a New Yorker’s wont.
An older girl was walking by and saw what was happening. She looked us over and rolled her eyes at the cab driver. “Ya’ll going to Howard?” she said turning to us. “I go to Howard. I’ll give you girls a ride.”
We thankfully crammed in the car and chatted along the way, but when we got to campus things got weird. One Resident Assistant (RA) went so far as to burst out laughing when she saw the girl help us get our stuff out of her trunk, and screamed, “HA. Girl, you must be in a real good mood today, huh?!”
She shrugged it off and and wished us a good semester.
It was later brought to my attention that the good samaritan was not only a sorority member in a coveted organization, but the Vice President. A position not typically seen chauffeuring around a bunch of lost fish with “JAM” still around their edges.
I didn’t know much about the greeks, but from that act of kindness, I held her organization to a higher esteem. Any group is only as good as the people in it. My suggestion is to watch how the individuals move, and then determine if the collective aligns with you, your goals and your moral compass.
6. Believe That You Deserve to Be Where You Are : You Can't Be in Two Places
This one is the most important.
Studies suggest that FGCS experience survivor’s guilt, interpreting their new found life as an underserved advantage over their often close-knit families.
Monica Gray, of D.C. College Success Foundation, made the familiar observation. “Every student has a story of a cousin, a sibling, a friend, a neighbor who went to college, but had to drop out."
I once had a friend who was unequivocally brilliant. I knew early on that my skills rested in the arts and humanities, sealing my fate for a dubious career path. I was smart, but she could do our honors geometry homework during lunch for the period before, with still enough time to try to help me correct my work (I'm still horrible at math). She went to a esteemed public Ivy on full scholarship, set on the pre-med track. We made a pact that we were going to get out, and she jokingly promised to lend me money as a future doctor. But as we matriculated through school I noticed that she would come back home almost every weekend. She would date the same boys from our drug riddled neighborhood and go to the same parties that would abruptly end in a shooting every weekend.
Eventually, she "took a break" and never went back. The summer before I was set to graduate we were driving around in her Sonata with the broken door, and the lull in the conversation compelled me to blurt out, "I thought we were graduating together. What happened?!"
"I don't know..." she said. "I just felt out of place. It was lonely."
I nodded in understanding as we pulled up to order gas station chicken. I couldn't say that I hadn't experienced the same. I lost count of how many times people asked me, "You were in Jack and Jill, right?" They always politely changed the conversation when I asked them what they were talking about, to their credit.
Once you internalize that you deserve to be where you are, everything else falls into place. If possible, try to bring your family into your new life even if they don't understand it. Let them know what's happening and be available, but don't back track. If you've been pegged as different your whole life, chances are THAT life doesn't fit you anyway, so much as it's familiar.
Step into the life that suits you. You've done the work and you deserve it.
BONUS: Parents: send care packages. Even if it’s just a postcard or something specific from home. There's something special about physically opening something that family sends to you.
Congratulations to the incoming First Generation College Students of 2017. I hope these hard learned tips help, and I can't wait to see what amazing things you have in store for the world.