The Hidden Challenges for Successful First-Generation Ph.D.s

First-generation grad students continue to grapple with the same issues they struggled with as undergraduates -- yet those struggles are amplified in graduate school settings, argues Bailey B. Smolarek.

October 9, 2019
 
 
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It was second semester of my freshman year of college, and one of my friends and I were both wait-listed for the same class. I remember feeling concerned and frustrated because the course was required, and if I didn’t get into it, my entire schedule for both that semester and the following one would be thrown off. Still, I was hopeful that either someone would drop the course to allow for additional space or the professor would take pity on those of us wait-listed and open more seats.

But as I sat patiently waiting to see what would happen, my friend took matters into her own hands. She attended the class on the first day, walked up to the professor, introduced herself, explained she would like to take the course and asked to be taken off the wait list. And just like that, she was in.

I can still remember how I felt when she told me what happened -- how confused I was when she nonchalantly explained what she had done. To me, it was unthinkable to go to the professor and make such a request. To me, such an action was presumptive, entitled and disrespectful. Why would someone ever think they were superior to the others on the wait list? Why would someone ever think that they could just go to the head of the line? In addition to feeling confused about how this process was even possible, I felt foolish for not knowing about it. How did she know to do this and I didn't?

Fourteen years and three degrees later, I’m still struggling to figure out the process: What’s allowed, what isn’t and how do you know the difference? As I reflect on the wait-list incident of freshman year, as well as many similar experiences I’ve had in the time between, I realize that my confusion, uncertainty and constant feelings of foolishness all stem from the fact that I am a first-generation college student. I am not only the first in my immediate family to attend a postsecondary institution but also the first to have received a master’s degree and a Ph.D.

While there is a growing and prominent literature on the experiences of first-generation undergraduate students, there is a lack of research on the experiences of first-generation graduate students. People tend to assume that if someone makes it through the bachelor’s degree, they enter graduate school on a level playing field. But that is often not the case. If my experiences have taught me anything, it’s that first-generation graduate students not only continue to struggle with the same issues that they grappled with during their undergraduate studies, but that those struggles are amplified in graduate school settings -- where linguistic style, embodied habits and dress, and social connections become even more important to success.

This should matter to the academy not only because we want graduate school to be more supportive and inclusive, but also because the people studying for their Ph.D.s today are the same people who will be teaching the first-generation students, students of color and nontraditional students of the future. Discussions of access, equity and support for such populations must also include a discussion of who is teaching them.

Not Knowing the Rules

When I reflect back on my undergraduate experiences, I see the first-gen student and her mistakes. But it’s no different when I reflect back on my graduate school experiences, because she’s there, too. Just as I thought it was too presumptive to approach my professor freshman year to be taken off the wait list, I thought it was too presumptive to ask my professors in graduate school if I could work on their studies. In my mind, I thought that if I worked hard in their courses and proved my worth, they would ask me to work with them. But just as I was wrong my freshman year, I was wrong again in graduate school as I watched my peers confidently approach superstar professors and obtain coveted graduate assistantships. Again, I didn't know the rules, and I felt like a fool.

Another instance in graduate school when I didn’t know what to do was when a professor was unkind to me. I didn’t know how to respond to this professor, so I ended up asking my mother for advice. Her response was simple: “Sometimes bosses aren’t nice.” That was it.

Reflecting back on that, I know if my child were in that situation today, I would advise them much differently. I would explain to them that working with students is a primary part of a professor’s job, and there’s no excuse for treating someone unkindly. I would explain to them the importance of a supportive environment and tell them to develop relationships with professors they admire. I would tell them to seek out mentors rather than respectfully waiting, because that shows you’re motivated.

But my mother did not go to college. My mother does not have Ph.D. In working-class culture, school is often viewed as a job. So it makes complete sense that my mom saw this professor as my boss and passed along the sound advice that bosses aren’t always nice and I should learn to deal with it. “Deal with it” is a motto many first-generation students live by.

As is already well documented, finances also play a significant role in the lives of first-generation students. Throughout my bachelor’s degree, I worked both an on- and off-campus job in addition to being a full-time student. During my master’s degree, I took a full credit load, taught a course and worked 20 hours per week at a restaurant.

My Ph.D. program was no different. During the semester I took my prelims, I was taking courses, teaching two university classes and also teaching a noncredit night course. Still, my small graduate-student stipend was usually not enough, as I often had to pass on going to national conferences that my graduate school friends were able to attend, miss out on talks and opportunities to volunteer on research studies because I was busy working, and take out student loans (that accrued interest while I was in grad school) to cover the remaining costs of life.

In addition to financial burdens, first-generation students also have to deal with navigating an unfamiliar system and unfamiliar sociocultural norms. Throughout my many years in higher education, I have learned a lot. I have not only acquired a great deal of intellectual knowledge, but I have also acquired much of the social, cultural and institutional capital that comes along with the title of “Doctor.” I blend in with my peers and have learned academicspeak -- I can ramble about the hegemonic practices of the neoliberal oligarchy until I am blue in the face.

But it was not always that way. And while a considerable amount of my ability to now “pass” in the academic world is due to my white privilege, much of it is also due to a great deal of social observation and imitation.

I remember during the first year of my master’s program, my professor made a joke about the way I elongated my O’s. My northern Wisconsin upbringing gave me away, and he joked about how people “up there” talk. I can still remember the entire class staring at me, chuckling along with the professor as I held back tears. My accent marked me as not belonging -- as being someone from a less educated and less affluent “backwoods” part of the state. After that incident, I worked very hard to lose the most prominent features of my accent, to think about each vowel as I said it and to try to make myself sound more like my peers. I remember the joy I felt a few years later when one of my colleagues was surprised to hear I was from Wisconsin, because she had thought I was from California. “Success!” I thought. “I’ve passed.”

Throughout graduate school, I paid close attention to the ways my peers talked, dressed and moved, and then I tried my best to do the same. I wasn’t only learning about Bourdieu’s theory of capital -- I was living it. My hard work has paid off, as I’m now often mistaken for someone I’m not. Just recently a community partner I work with assumed I was a wealthy trust-fund kid. He was shocked when I told him I was first generation.

A Disservice to the Entire Academy

In recent years, colleges and universities have made significant, and much needed, efforts to diversify the academy. Yet institutions must not only recruit and retain more scholars of color, female scholars and scholars from nontraditional backgrounds but also support them throughout their graduate education. Researchers examining the experiences of first-generation students, as well as students of color, have strongly argued that success in college is about much more than access. It is about creating environments in which such students can flourish. The same is also true for the success of these students at the graduate level.

Forcing first-generation students to change their cultural sensibilities and ways of being in order to belong not only does a disservice to them but also to the entire academy. It may be seen as a weakness that I just “dealt with it” when I didn’t get into the class I was wait-listed for freshman year, or didn’t have time to attend additional talks or workshops in graduate school, or had to take out student loans to pay rent, or had to listen while a professor was mean to me, or developed insomnia during prelims, or didn’t know how to negotiate my salary or navigate the academic job market. But my ability to deal with it is actually a strength. Working-class kids do not grow up feeling entitled; to borrow Annette Lareau’s words, we are not concertively cultivated. And, in fact, it is precisely that ability to deal with it that makes me a better colleague, teacher and mentor.

Having that ability means that I’m able to share with others and not always take the credit, empathize with students and help them feel like they belong, and see beyond the surface to understand that people miss classes or assignments for reasons beyond being “lazy.” It allows me to see the hypocrisy of profiting off poverty research, of charging students more in tuition while increasing class size and of advocating for social justice while simultaneously exploiting graduate student labor. In short, my ability to deal with it means that I’m able to see things differently and communicate those things to people outside the traditional academic sphere.

First-generation Ph.D.s bring a great deal of knowledge, experience and strengths to the academy that should not only be recognized but also appreciated. So, I ask, how we can better support our first-generation graduate students? How can we create an environment in which they feel truly welcomed without having to change who they are? How can we ensure first-generation Ph.D.s can fully engage in their learning without working multiple additional jobs? And how can we create more space for first-generation Ph.D.s to have conversations like these without shame or stigma?

Bio

Bailey B. Smolarek is an associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Her work has been published in Race, Ethnicity and Education, American Educational Research Journal, and The Journal of Higher Education.

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