When you’re a low-income first-generation college student, there are a lot of fears that come with going to college that other people may not even think about. Of the 56 students in my high school class, there were only a few who went on to attend four-year college. The rest got jobs, went to community college, or joined the military.
One of my biggest fears about going to college was whether or not the environment was right for me. I grew up in a household of four, which included my two sisters and my divorced mother. I am the eldest of my two siblings. We were considered low income because my mother’s income was below the state poverty line for a household of four, which is $55,500 for 2022 per year. That alone made college a tough choice because they saw me as their role model.
The second fear I had was choosing a major, which is common when you get accepted. However, choosing a major might be more difficult because I had to choose between something I wanted to do or something that would make money. There were people in my family who were aggressively vocal about what I should do with my life, especially when salary was at stake.
Because I excelled in math and science, my parents thought I would want to become an engineer. Growing up, I always heard that STEM majors lack diversity in their fields. This, along with the pressure of money, is what forced me into the discipline of engineering.
I went to a school called Davis Aerospace Technical High School, a school not known in the Detroit area as Cass, King or Renaissance. When I told people I went to Davis, they said, “I’ve never heard of this school. This didn’t surprise me as it was a STEM-based school with a strong focus on aerospace engineering. It wasn’t something that particularly interested me. However, it provided me with the stepping stones into the field of engineering.
When I was accepted into Michigan State, tremendous pressure came with it. I was afraid I wouldn’t like my parents if I went to college and found out it wasn’t for me. Coming to MSU, the culture was very different. I felt like an impostor among the student population, I didn’t know if I would fit in.
This was the case in the majority of my classes, where there were virtually no students of color. I found it very difficult to manage my life without the support of both my parents. During my first year, I struggled to meet my personal and educational needs. Since my mother did not earn enough money, I had to earn money on my own.
Getting a job on campus was difficult, I felt like I didn’t have much experience. I only worked two part-time jobs while in high school as a busboy and retail associate. But I felt like that wasn’t enough to get a job. Those bumps in the road alone landed me on school probation. My mother was not very happy about this and it was a traumatic blow to my self-esteem and I started to wonder if I wanted to continue or not.
In my second year, I changed my major to journalism. This came with another hurdle: getting an internship. The School of Journalism requires all of its students to complete at least one internship credit in order to earn a degree in journalism. I found it extremely difficult to find an internship throughout my years at university. I applied for about fifteen internships and each of them was refused.
For the past few years, I’ve felt like an outcast. I felt like there was no community for me and the other first generation students. Being around students who aren’t first generation gave me a feeling of indifference, like the world was staring at me.
As I reflected on my experiences as a first-generation college student, I realized that I was not my background or my situation. Being at Michigan State has provided me with some resources that I can pass on to potential students who share the same background similar to mine. It can be difficult to be the first member of your family to make the jump to university. With the right support, you can accomplish anything.
Some resources are available for students who identify as first generation. One of them is the Office for Cultural and Academic Transitions, or OCAT. The main objective of OCAT is to support students as they navigate the many different cultures around the world. You will find the Cultural and Academic Transitions Office in the Student Services Building, Room 339.
Another helpful resource is TRiO Student Support Services. TRiO provides resources such as personal counseling and advice for first-generation college students. Last year, TRiO and the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative, or NSSC, earned MSU acceptance into the First Generation Advanced Cohort. You can learn more about TRiO by visiting here or visiting their office on the second floor of Bessey Hall.
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