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  • Writer's picturePiper Diers

The gray area first-generation students face

Piper talks about gray area that might not classify her as a first-generation student, however, she still identifies as one. Learn why.

I don't know how to answer the question “Are you a first-gen student?”

Personally, I strongly identify with a lot of aspects of the first-generation student experience, but what stops me every time is a technicality, that one of my parents completed a four-year degree program. I don’t want to overstep on an identity that I technically don’t belong to, but I still hesitate to say that I am not a first-gen student.

"It is with this second, expanded definition [of first-generation] that I closely identify with."

For many, the term “first-generation student” has a simple, clear definition: a student whose parents did not complete a four-year degree program, or someone whose parents didn’t attend college. With this definition, I don’t qualify as a first-gen student, as one of my parents has a degree.

Brown University offers a slightly different definition of a first-gen student. Of course, they include the previously mentioned definition, but they expand it to include students who haven’t had access to or exposure to systems of higher education, or who don’t possess the knowledge of how to navigate these spaces. It is with this second, expanded definition that I closely identify with.

Although one of my parents attended college, I didn’t step foot onto a college campus until my older brother was moved into his freshman dorm room. I didn’t know the first thing about finding a school that was a good fit for me, let alone anything about the application process. I assumed that schools I had never heard of would be relatively easier to get accepted into, when in reality, they had acceptance rates that rivaled the Ivy Leagues. I visited a grand total of five colleges, and applied to six, which may sound like a lot to some people, but compared to the experiences of some of my friends, was a drop in the bucket.

I heard friends talking about flying across the country just to tour a campus and get interviewed by the admissions staff. Some of my peers recalled visiting college campuses as children, of growing up in a world in which knowledge of and exposure to the world of higher education was the norm.

Upon arriving at Kenyon College, I had almost no idea what resources were available to me. This wasn’t an issue for the most part, however, I have always been conscious of the fact that I didn’t have my parents to fall back on. Neither of them had any experience with private liberal arts schools, aside from two of their children being enrolled in them.

That’s not to say that my parents never helped me on my college journey. They emphasized the importance of standardized testing scores, picking an extracurricular and sticking to it, rather than dabbling in a lot of activities that I thought would look good on a resumé. They drove me hundreds of miles to tour the schools of my dreams. My parents did their best, but I can’t help but notice the disadvantages I’ve had by not growing up with a parent, or both parents, who’ve attended a private university.

I might never be officially considered a first generation student. I’m not considered one at my school, and so far, the only university that has offered an alternative definition has been Brown University. In spite of this, I continue to identify with the first-gen student experience, and I most likely will continue to do so long after my days as a college student.


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