Being a “First Gen” Grad Student

After the orientation to my MA program, I went home and googled “masters thesis.” Perhaps I didn’t “Google,” since the monster corp had yet to infiltrate the internet or our vernacular, but I certainly left my first day as a graduate student wondering what I was supposed to be doing.

One of my new colleagues filled me in. He knew because his Dad told him all about what to expect at grad school.

That was my first welcome to extra layer of learning I would face “first generation” graduate student. Recently, #followfirstgenerationacademics helped me realize I wasn’t alone. Many others had bumbled through, like me, consistently surprised by what I didn’t know and feeling like I was a step behind.

It seems there are multiple ways to define “first generation college student,” should one parent have a degree, or none? Does some college count? Yet, regardless of the definition, it seems first generation students are at a disadvantage when it comes to successful applications for admission, winning scholarships, and completion rates.

How the social, professional, psychological and academic difficulties faced by first gen undergraduates play out differ from experiences at graduate school, in my experience. By the time I was ready to apply for an masters programme, I was lucky to have two mentors (both professors at UNBC) willing to dispense advice and look over application statements.

Until I tripped over them in graduate school, some norms of academia were completely unknown to me. My undergraduate university was small, and most professors preferred students use their first names. It never occurred to me – until I was brusquely told – that honorifics were the norm, at least when you first meet a professor.

Other social expectations around teaching, grades, colloquium behaviour, work-life balance, were all trial and error for me. I couldn’t call a parent and say “hey, I’m buried in marking and have a paper due, what did you do?” My parents are enormously supportive, but this sentence is outside their lived experience. No one knows the unique pain of marking hundreds of student papers until surviving through.

Groping through lasts well into graduate school. Even near the end of my PhD, I struggled to explain the (bleak) academic job market to my family, or why I’d move for a 2 year postdoc. My mom adorably called my dissertation “your paper,” which (less adorably) fit into the sentence: is your paper finished yet?

Professionally, I’m lucky. I have a network at the IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin team. In that capacity, I was once copied on an email from a professor to the head of the Bulletin team to ask about international internship opportunities for their daughter. Such opportunities – and the means to access them are often beyond the worldview of first generation students. I’ve sought out connections because I know it’s only up to me. No professorial parent is available to help. It feels like an extra weight on my shoulders.

Perhaps, these psychological challenges are the most daunting. Being a first generation feeds into, and multiples, imposter syndrome – that sneaking feeling I don’t belong and will be exposed as a fraud at any moment. Because, my family history – my lived history for most of my life – tells me that I don’t belong.

Education changes people, potentially weakening family ties. First generation academics develop two identities – one for home and one for university. For first generation undergraduates, the division of identities can be difficult to overcome – which is the “real me?” For graduate students, I think the dichotomy rescinds. Graduate students tend to be more liberal than those with an undergraduate degree.

I’m the only liberal, feminist in my family. More education in graduate school means I’ve spent more time in my “academic” personality, particularly as the time since I’ve lived in my hometown stretches into decades. This means I choose between biting my tongue, trying to understand why my family holds their views, and, occasionally, striving to provide information without ostracizing myself as the Dr. Know It All.

At the same time, my family cites me as a role model for my nieces and nephews. Do I want that responsibility? None of them are pursuing an undergraduate degree, although several excelled in technical colleges. When some didn’t get the right courses from high school to move on to the BSc they wanted, I felt like I had let them down.

After I finished my dissertation, my supervisor asked how my accomplishments fit in my family’s story. He expected a pedigree, and was surprised to hear no one else has an undergraduate degree, let alone a PhD. He congratulated me doubly. I felt lonely.

My family is an bottomless well of support and love. The dissonances created by being a first generation PhD, from worldview to professional prospects, and even the context of sweat and tears necessary to get a PhD, creates an aloneness as my life is largely lost in translation to my family.

My parents and siblings are bright, quick witted, and fiercely loyal. We collapse together into a rough n’tumble unit, together in celebration or despair. I’m here because of them. Because my Dad filled my head with ideas of higher education throughout my childhood. Because my Mom told me to keep going when things were hard. Because my sisters and brothers took me for a beer to celebrate or to listen to my alien gripes.

I’m Dr. Allan because of family support and opportunity. Opportunities that should be available to others without family histories of higher education.



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