While we’re still working with administration on this problem, I took it upon myself to create a LinkedIn and Facebook group for first-gen Smithies of all class years to connect with one another. However, one alum in particular asked me a question I’d never really considered before.
“If only one of my parents went to college, do I still count as first generation?” Upon thinking about it, I realized the answer is more complicated than it might seem.
The nonprofit organization I’m First! describes a first generation college student as a student where “neither parent has received a four-year college degree." Smith’s first-gen student organization, meanwhile, purposely has a broad definition of who is first-gen. We define a first-gen student as anyone who does not have sufficient support at home to encourage them throughout college. In my first year of college, I’ve met different students -- all of whom identify as first-generation college students -- who come from various backgrounds.
Since Smith is one of the Five Colleges (a system which also includes Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, and University of Massachusetts Amherst), we’re able to easily mingle with first-gen students throughout the colleges. Amherst College hosted a first-generation student mixer this past April. While attending, I met students of almost every racial background and of different financial backgrounds. Some students were the children of immigrants who had gone to college in their native countries, but still considered themselves to be first-generation.
“My parents went to college,” she said, “but when it comes to American schools they’re lost. They really didn’t know how to help me.”
I’ve spoken to students who had absent college educated parents, college educated parents who did not offer support, or who could not offer support for health reasons. Whatever the personal history was, a student’s personal first-gen identity was always centered around one theme: a lack of support from family.
So yes, a first-gen student is someone whose parents didn’t earn a college degree, but they’re also students whose parents were educated in a different country and were never able to speak English fluently enough to help their child through the college process. First-gen students have parents who went to college, but had to drop out and never graduated. The first-gen identity is an ever changing one and a highly personal one. Ultimately, it is the experience one has in their college years rather than technicalities that makes a first-gen student.
-- Caty Seger