To Advisors of First Gen Students: Tell the Truth

LGBTQ college students staring at the camera

I can still vividly remember my first days on campus as a first generation, first gen, college student. How lush and expansive if felt in comparison to the slums of Cleveland.

This was a whole new world literally, and I was new in it. I had made it from poverty to the rolling lawns and bunny rabbits of Bowling Green State University on full scholarship – or so I thought.

Minor to Major Differences

As I continued my matriculation through college, I noticed the stark differences between my peers and me. First, there were minor differences like what brand of clothes they wore compared to mine and how up-to-date their hair styles were. The contrast between us grew even larger as school breaks approached.

School breaks were nightmares for me. While I was trying my best at pretending to be “middle class” in college, I was actually homeless and had nowhere to go during breaks. Many breaks were spent with families of friends who took pity on me.

Aspirational vs. Fully Supportive

Class, this huge system, was looming over my entire life and was rarely ever explicitly discussed on campus. People talked around it. When it was discussed, with professors, campus advisers and peers, it went something like, “Oh, you will have so much opportunity when you graduate. This won’t last forever, and you are already successful. Just keep going until you finish, and the world will open up to you. Be grateful you made it out.”

“...balance the hopeful messages with the unadulterated honest messages that will truly show students the journey before them – and that class struggle never stops.”

I have come to understand that those messages are aspirational in nature and meant to be encouraging. I see my colleagues working in student affairs and inclusion make similar statements to students today.

While those messages are meant to be supportive, what if they are doing more harm than good to our students? What if our students need advice that is supportive and deeply honest? Messages like:

  • We know you are maxed out on loans, and paying them back will be difficult.
  • It will take you a while to figure out what careers you work best in.

Or what about, telling them about stepping out or choosing a career that does not require a degree but some other type of training?

Is it possible for those of us who have experienced the roller coaster of what it means to be born into poverty – but given the opportunity to gain educational capital – to tell our full truth? The doubt, impostor syndrome, the near drop outs, the first time you got a check bigger than you parents, or when your family decided you were the ATM because you have a degree.

Hope and Unadulterated Truth

We, as student advisers, often play the game of it-will-get-better for first gen, students of color, queer and trans students of color, homeless and poverty-stricken students, because they have that degree. And we do this without providing the facts – the balance – about how difficult it can be to make it better when you come from a place of no safety net of family support.

That diploma is not a panacea and create lots of cognitive dissonance. I know it still does for me, and I am over a decade past my undergraduate years. My hope and call to all who work with students, particularly minoritized students, is to balance the hopeful messages with the unadulterated honest messages that will truly show students the journey before them – and that class struggle never stops.

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