student support

COVID-19's Impact on First-Generation College Students Is Complicated

As a nonprofit leader and educator who works with college students of African descent, I am intimately aware of how challenging getting through college can be for some students. When COVID-19 hit, I couldn’t help but worry about all of the young people who have become part of my life through my organization, DIFFvelopment. Through my work, which focuses on addressing the lack of Black generational wealth through culturally specific entrepreneurial and financial education, I spend a great deal of time speaking with young Black people about their economic struggles and how to rise above them.

One of my summer program alums, Imani Nalasha Burnett, came to mind as I nervously watched the news headlines endlessly update the public on how college students had to leave their respective institutions and finish up their semesters at home. Imani is a first-generation Senegalese and African American college student who is unable to go back home due to an unfortunate set of events that made her home unlivable. Her mother is not in a position to provide for her or her siblings and Imani often worries about how she can support the younger ones. Before COVID-19, Imani was just coming to terms with the fact that not only would she be graduating in May, but that she would also more or less be on her own once she graduated.

As NASPA stated, “While a desire to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is understandable, this leaves many first-generation students, particularly those with an intersectional low-income identity, with difficult decisions to make. Many of these students may not have permanent residences to return to, may face transportation issues or food insecurity, and are concerned about not having income from campus or local employment.”

Like other first-generation college students, Imani had to worry about all of these things. Luckily enough, her older sister was kind enough to allow her to stay with her during this time period, taking a bit of the stress off of Imani when it comes to housing and food. However, there are other issues. Imani opened my eyes to some not so obvious challenges that come with being a first-generation college student who has had to go back “home” because of COVID-19.

Functioning through college as a first-generation student is already a challenge on its own. Going back home because of COVID-19 and being the only one who is currently living through college can be very challenging. Those in my family who did not attend college either cannot fathom how “I am doing it” and give me so much love and credit for being in college, or they over-glorify me in the process. This pedestal I am put on causes them to think that I am automatically a “super student,” who can wash dishes, talk to them, take care of my nieces and finish my assignments all in one hour. I have found that I have to fight for consideration and empathy from most because they have not experienced what it took for me to stay the course during my time in college.

Imani’s experience sheds light on how difficult it can be to have to attend virtual classes, complete assignments and study in environments that are not conducive with the level of concentration academics require. For those of us whose parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings all went to college, the idea of ever having to explain why you need space to get your work done is totally foreign; however, for first-generation college students like Imani, it is a very real reality.

As the first in her family to go to college, Imani finds herself dealing with “mounds of pressure” as she has automatically become “the pillar of [her] family and community because having access to a college education is a big deal, especially for people coming from communities of poverty.”

I think Imani speaks for many first-generation students when she says,

COVID-19 did not only cause me to leave campus and learn to adapt to online learning, it has also opened my eyes to how important it is for me to be a growing student as I continue my education in the future and consider my own progress through it all. Being around my family is a constant reminder as to why it is so crucial for me to finish out strong and grow in gratitude for the college education I have been blessed with already.

Hopefully, other first-generation college students will gain inspiration from Imani’s story of triumph and perseverance. Her positive outlook on life despite its many challenges, gives me hope for the future of all of the college students struggling to earn their degree in the midst of incredible hardship.

Esi Kagale Agyeman Gillo
Esi Kagale Agyeman Gillo is co-founder of DIFFvelopment, the non-profit that aims to re-empower people of African descent by developing culturally specific entrepreneurial programs. Esi is committed to re-empowering people of African descent by holistically empowering college students to disrupt ...

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