As a First-Generation College Student I Need a Lot More Than Financial Aid

I was reared and schooled in Detroit, where poverty and oppression eloquently danced while violence and crime serenaded the communities. The crime and oppression in my neighborhood drove me to submit a college application that would change my life’s trajectory. I didn't go to college to become an adult; I already faced mature challenges and struggles long before I filled out my college applications. For me, higher education represented an escape from adult struggles. But I found I couldn’t escape, especially from the financial challenges. For first-generation college students, the menu of responsibilities designed for a mature adult are often delegated to adolescents in precarious environments and situations. I am now in graduate school, so I have some distance and perspective on what first-gens really need to thrive at a four-year college. But despite  some model programs at select universities, I fear the current political climate and threatened budget cuts will only make it harder for first-gens to navigate this precarious journey to a four-year degree. I know from experience that my journey as a first-gen and non-traditional undergraduate college student is devastatingly common. No one at my high school or college ever talked to me about the financial realities of being an independent student who couldn’t rely on family for support. FAFSA, Pell Grants and loans were all foreign concepts. I should have been informed that these sources of financial assistance would aid in obtaining my degrees. The type of conversations I had growing up or attending public school rarely involved talks about college. We talked about who would buy dinner that night or who needed to get a job at age 16 to help pay some utility bill. Survival was the goal. I had already tangled with life and boxed with oppression, discrimination, stereotypical beliefs and negative ideologies. I had already paid utilities and rent, while juggling school, plus a job or two. Life had prepared me for college. But the challenges never stopped coming.

‘I have no safety net—I am the safety net’

Even as I struggled to pay my tuition and buy meals at school when the food courts would close for the weekends, I would often get a call from a relative who couldn’t afford groceries and needed me to help. As a first-gen, I am the “financial savior” of the family—the relief starts with me. I have no safety net—I am the safety net. Successfully completing college required a constant balancing act—maintaining my GPA, bridging gaps back at home and navigating collegiate bureaucracies while learning how to effectively respond to microaggressions and prejudiced thinking when in majority-White spaces. Spectators would classify the underlying factor of our motivation as “grit” or “determination,” but [pullquote position="left"]for many first-gens, our motivation is simply survival. We have no choice. Missing an assignment, being too tired to attend a bio lecture after working more than 30 hours a week, failing a 300-level course or even missing a tuition payment—it’s all a slippery slope back to the environment that suffocated our dreams. Being hungry on weekends for most first-gens means texting a friend to ask for an extra cup of ramen noodles because there is no care package with your name on it, and all of your extra funds went toward paying your tuition that school aid or Pell Grants didn’t cover. First-gens must have extraordinary vision, strength, persistence and determination. First-gens must use positive affirmations, self-motivation, unlimited resources and self-fulfilling prophecies to achieve our academic and personal goals. And we are a population colleges cannot afford to ignore—we represented  36 percent of students seeking a four-year degree nationwide in 2012. Politicians, educators, social workers, counselors and administrators must acknowledge and address the intersecting social and cultural challenges that accompany first-gens to college and follow them even after they secure a degree. We need a different kind of support system to thrive in college. That means we need mentors, help with living expenses and travel costs, tutors, flexible schedules and emotional support for and from other students who feel isolated but are also coping with similar struggles. We need to stop talking about college attainment in simplistic ways. It takes so much more than grit.
An original version of this post appeared on Head in the Sand as Life as a first-gen college student: ‘The challenges never stopped coming’.
Brandon Terrell recently graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is interning at the Michigan office of Students for Education Reform and hopes to pursue a career in psychotherapy.

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