Being A First-Generation College Student at William and Mary

Anonymous FGLI Student

The experience of a first-generation college student is different compared to non-first-generation college students.  First-generation college students do not have the advantage to question their parents on college advice since he or she is the first to attend college.  This inability of parental wisdom leaves first-generation college students unprepared for the obstacles of financial literacy, college expectations, college adjustment, etc.  Conversely, non-first-generation college students have the auspicious advantage of having parental advice that is knowledgeable about the college experience and social scene.  Consequently, first-generation college students from the start of college face more barriers than any other student entering higher education. However, first-generation college students try to circumvent these challenges by seeking advice from current students at their college.

As a first-generation college student, I attempted to mitigate the sense of not knowing how to prepare for college by seeking the advice of William and Mary students.  Before arriving on campus, I asked current students, “What is your advice for freshman students at William and Mary?”  Consistently, I would get the same response—“Prepare yourself for the academic rigor of William and Mary.”  Retrospectively, this advice demonstrated to me that academics at my school were indeed challenging.  Yet, looking back at my first year of college, it was not academics that were challenging for me.  My first year of college was challenging because I was a first-generation college student trying to adjust and find my community within a predominantly White institution (PWI).

When I arrived on campus for move-in day, orientation aids would shout to everyone through their megaphones, “Welcome to the Tribe.”  This benign statement has become a reminder of the challenges I faced to discover my “tribe” in my first year of college as a first-generation college student.  Upon analysis, the word “tribe” denotes an aspect in which a person is incorporated into a collective group because he or she exhibits social, economic, and cultural values that coincide with the group’s characteristics.  This seemingly innocuous statement, in fact, has a preconceived notion that those who come to William and Mary fit a particular type of mold that has led to them being accepted on campus.  Yet, I, in stark contrast, did not match the characteristics of the student population as a first-generation college student.

I am different from my peers because of my underrepresented status on campus.  In simple terms, to be underrepresented is to be a student that is not typically represented not only on campus (William and Mary) but in higher education in general.  For example, the student population for my class (2023) is 1,540 students.  Out of those 1,540 students, only 37 percent are Students of Color, and 10 percent are only first-generation college students.  These statistics demonstrate that first-generation college students and Students of Color are underrepresented at William and Mary since they constitute less than 50 percent of the student population for my class.  The reality of these statistics became evident to me when I was only 2 out of 148 residents in my hall that were Hispanic, whereas the rest of the residents were predominately White.  Moreover, I felt my distinguishing factor on campus when I was often the only Hispanic student in predominantly White classrooms.  The reality of these statistics not only became evident for me on campus, but they also became challenging in my journey in adjusting to college.

It was the first time in my life where I felt that my differential characteristics made it challenging for me to connect to the student population on campus.  My status as a first-generation college student made it cumbersome for me to connect to the residents of my hall who were from upper socioeconomic backgrounds than me.  I, respectfully, could not relate to their experiences in private educations, their exuberant summer vacations, and neither could I relate to their parents’ “success” in white-collar jobs.  Instead, I am a second-generation immigrant, from a public school background, trying to bring upward intergenerational mobility to my family.  Importantly, I want to make my education worthwhile to my blue-collar parents that have sacrificed a significant portion of their lives working in laborious jobs to see me walk, live, and learn in one of the most prestigious schools in Virginia.  The inability to connect with my peers on campus made me feel isolated at the start of college; it even led to me questioning my purpose on campus. Nevertheless, the sensation of isolation that I was feeling was a common phenomenon that occurs to underrepresented students in predominantly White institutions.

Surprisingly, it was through a psychology class in my first year of college that I found a label to the sense of isolation that I felt as a first-generation college student.  Before coming to William and Mary, my freshman advisor recommended that I take a course called Underrepresented Scholars in Academy, a psychology course that explains the historical and contemporary obstacles faced by underrepresented groups in higher education, especially Students of Color and first-generation college students.  I was hesitant to take this course because it did not relate to my government major; however, I took it because it fulfills one of my graduating requirements.  Nonetheless, this class surprised me in how impactful it was in understanding the sense of isolation I felt on campus.  In our first lectures, Professor Dickter, psychologist, described that underrepresented students face a common phenomenon called solo status.  She defined solo status as a psychological situation where an individual feels isolated from the majority population because he or she cannot relate to its culture, race, or gender.  Through this series of lectures, I understood that my sense of isolation was a psychological phenomenon that afflicts millions of underrepresented students in PWIs across the United States.

As our end of semester project for this class, Professor Dickter assigned us to create a web presentation that would help future underrepresented students on campus.  I decided to create a resource that all first-generation college students at William and Mary (W&M) could access; thus, I created the W&M First-Gen. website to provide students with a source of help that  1) defines what a first-generation college student is; 2) identifies common obstacles that first-generation college students face; 3) resources at W&M to overcome these obstacles; 4) and internet resources.  Through the creation of this website, I learned that my purpose at William and Mary is to create a community for first-generation college students.  I came into the mindset that I would find my “tribe” immediately; instead, I learned that some communities have to be built by individuals that have the means to be advocates for their community.  In other words, I have made it my mission to serve as a spokesperson for first-generation college students at William and Mary.  We are a small community, but we also seek to be recognized, assisted, and celebrated at William and Mary.  In sum, I have realized that if your identified community is not recognized, assisted, or celebrated, you need to take the leadership position to be a proponent in its community-building process.

       While I came into William and Mary with the mindset of studying government, I have put into use my government major into action.  Since the creation of my website, a recently recognized student organization called First-Generation-Low Income (FGLI) asked me to become part of their advocacy group for first-generation college students at William and Mary.  Now serving as an advocacy committee member, I am at the forefront of planning events and resources targeted at my community.  So far, I have expanded the outreach of FGLI by incorporating their information, mission, and fundraising information to my website.  Although this organization is at its infancy, I am proud to be an individual that can be the middleman and representative of my community that communicates needs to the leadership of William and Mary.  Thus, this committee has demonstrated to me, as a government major, that change is possible when a community works collectively.

       Currently, our community seeks to petition William and Mary to be an active donor of  FGLI’s fundraiser campaign that aims to provide first-generation college students support initiatives, such as empowerment sessions, through the funds generated in this campaign.  With the growing voice of our community, we hope to make first-generation college students transition to William and Mary more smooth sailing than mine.  It is my hope that through FGLI we can provide incoming and current first-generation, low-income students the sense of community I have found.  I believe that FGLI’s community-building is vital in minimizing or even eliminating imposter syndrome for FGLI students. 

(This essay was submitted to a scholarship program. Some parts of the essay were modified to focus on the FGLI attribute.)

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