Going to college as a first generation student of color is more than just getting the money and applying for the right scholarships. It’s also about fitting in, trying to relate to your peers and constantly assimilating to a new culture.
Money is only the first hill we must climb before hurtling over various mountains that consist of doubt and class-based shame. This leads me to thinking over and over that maybe college is not made for people like me.
Living deep in the South, then moving up to the Pacific Northwest was a big change for me. And when I decided to pursue higher education, I was not prepared for such a tumultuous relationship with belonging and college culture.
When I began college I never expected that I would have to hide so much – and how much of my past would be unacceptable to discuss – because no one I knew could relate to my class experiences.
My first year in college, I felt so alone that I began to look for “community” through student groups and organizations. However, I felt that my language to be inadequate for both activist circles and classroom environments. Because of this, I felt more and more willing to change, erase my identity and assimilate to the college culture. In doing so, I slowly learned the language and what was acceptable.
Later, I saw that I began to subconsciously resent who I was and feel shame for the working-class life I had lived. I believed that I needed to change to succeed. Existing in higher education was not only about looking the role. It was also about giving up so much of myself that I was now embodying the role.
When I began college I never expected that I would have to hide so much – and how much of my past would be unacceptable to discuss – because no one I knew could relate to my class experiences.”
Assimilation and blending in also meant internalizing microaggressions and accepting classist comments from faculty and my peers. I heard class-based assumptions such as, Why would anyone want to eat fast food or All people from the South are rednecks. I wondered how I could ever relate to peers that looked down on people for the inability to purchase healthy and expensive food. Similarly, I questioned relating to people who were biased toward the state in which I once lived.
But I was silent, participating in the “white-washing” of academia. I was being a model first generation college student of color, being invisible and never rocking the boat.
With the added pressure of not failing, first generation students are also combating forces that challenge their own identity through the constant pressure to assimilate and give up their past. Belonging in a space and feeling accepted grows confidence in one’s ability to express their thoughts and produce honest work.
We see how confidence and environmental factors have a major impact on the individual. So I ask, How have higher educational institutions addressed these glaring symptoms of class struggle that perpetually push first generation college students out of classrooms? I wonder now as I continue my post-graduate education if there will ever be policy changes that support first generation students and their struggle between their own identity and the class-based culture in academia.
Universities claim to be progressive and “diverse.” Therefore, they should address these issues of assimilation and belonging when it comes to first generation retention and graduation rates.