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In recent years, we have seen a surge of interest in first-generation college students and graduates, both in terms of research and in online social media groups. Many of these conversations have focused on how the “rules” of the university serve as barriers to success for undergraduate students. But as Bailey Smolarek has pointed out, more attention must be dedicated to understanding how being first gen affects one’s life and opportunities in graduate programs.
A first-generation college graduate myself, I’ve recently found myself thinking a lot about these issues, because I now teach at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a university with a significant number of first-gen college students. What barriers did I face, and how did I manage to overcome them?
In this piece, I’ll reflect on some of the problems I encountered, how graduate school can serve as a site of inequality and how I ultimately succeeded as a grad student. While this is a personal reflection and may not be generalizable to everyone, I hope I can offer a few lessons for graduate students -- first gen and otherwise -- and for faculty who are training the next generation of scholars.
I entered graduate school in the fall of 2013, joining the Ph.D. program in sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I arrived bright-eyed and eager. I felt that getting into graduate school was a major accomplishment, and I was ready to continue learning.
I quickly discovered, however, that my peers didn’t need to learn -- or so it seemed. They were already professionals. A good example was my first day of class. At most universities, the first thing faculty ask us to do is to introduce ourselves to the group and to say a bit about our research interests. My what? Sure, I knew that I would write papers and ultimately a dissertation, but as we went around the room, my peers provided detailed summaries of the specific dissertation projects they hoped to pursue. Many of them planned to extend existing research projects. They were interested in “contentious politics,” “global development and neoliberalism,” “gendered violence,” and “uneven educational outcomes.” When it was my turn to introduce myself, I resisted the urge to say, “Uh … I’m interested in society,” and instead opted for some version of “I’m here because I really enjoyed my undergraduate sociological theory course.” I felt embarrassed, and I dreaded the first classes and meeting new faculty members from that day forward.
It all came so easily to my peers. They participated in class when I had no idea what to say. They had no problem asking questions of scholars who came to present from outside the department. In this way, graduate school serves as a site in which inequality is again reproduced. As Shamus Khan teaches us in Privilege, the performance of ease reinforces narratives about who belongs in particular spaces and roles.
In hindsight, I think my peers were just better at faking it than I was. For example, no one in my cohort pursued the project that they talked about during year one, and a third of my cohort didn’t finish the program. So, it wasn’t that they were necessarily smarter or better prepared, but rather they had cultural capital I had not yet acquired. They’d been socialized to engage easily with figures of authority -- in this case prominent scholars charged with passing us through the Ph.D. program.
Speaking of prominent scholars, I desperately wanted their approval. I wanted to be able to engage with them and make connections in the academy. Yet I felt perhaps most behind in this regard. Throughout my graduate career, I spent a lot of time working in the department. I think I did it because I felt like I was supposed to, even if most of the other graduate students tended to work from home or in coffee shops. Because I was on campus so much, I would often see grad students meeting with their advisers and other faculty members. In particular, I would regularly see graduate students meeting with my adviser in her office and hear her booming laugh carrying down the hall. I noticed a handful of students seemed to be getting hours of face time with her over the course of the semester. What did they talk about for so long? How were they on such friendly terms?
When I did meet with my adviser, I was always terribly nervous. Sometimes I could feel myself shaking. I wanted that free and easy ability to talk with her, and I wanted her to think highly of me. My solution was to always come prepared with a list of specific questions. Especially in the early years of the program, when I didn’t realize how basic my questions were, I’d end up exiting her office after about 15 minutes.
Up until the day I passed my dissertation defense, I felt insecure about the fact that I rarely met with my adviser and that my contact with the rest of my dissertation committee was minimal. In fact, to this day, I have no idea what people talk to their advisers about. But I imagine that, again, their class-based cultural capital allowed many of my peers to engage with my adviser in a way I didn’t understand. They could convert that cultural capital into social capital -- and eventually into strong letters of reference and jobs. Even if I didn’t have the understanding or language to explain it to myself the age of 22, I felt myself falling further behind.
Navigating Graduate School
I want to acknowledge that my adviser was indeed helpful, and especially so as I entered the job market. But I also want to note that I almost didn’t finish grad school. In fact, I took a year off from the program and didn’t plan on coming back. The only reason I didn’t outright withdraw was because my father gave me the classic “you start what you finish” talk. Going on leave kept him happy for a year, and when I decided to return, I planned to finish the master’s and then fully withdraw.
But after I came back, a few things clicked into place. Even if I still wasn’t getting the mentorship that I imagined should be possible, I found that opportunities were available. By luck, I was invited into a board game group with a handful of relatively senior graduate students. My friends started answering the questions I didn’t know I had. They lifted the veil on graduate school.
These senior grads often used the phrase “fake it till you make it” to describe their work. They shared their approaches to specific degree requirements. They described their experiences with faculty members -- some positive, some not so much. They complained about the especially pretentious students that had made me feel especially insecure. Even though most of them weren’t first gen, this backstage access let me see that my struggles weren’t totally my own.
I’m still not sure that I ever gained the cultural capital that would allow me to relate to and converse at length with the faculty who ultimately signed off on my dissertation. But from that point onward, I had role models I could look to, people who would answer my questions and colleagues who were willing to show me what their work looked like when they were at my stage in the program. I don’t think they intended to mentor me, but they made grad school navigable in a way that previously seemed impossible and had, in turn, left me feeling alienated from the program and the academy.
I also realized later in the program that faculty actually want to help, but they also have their own lives and a laundry list of responsibilities. While early on, my struggles to relate to professors and navigate graduate school felt like a big deal to me, they, of course, had not noticed. We have a system that, in the best-case scenario, responds when people fail courses or miss benchmarks. They didn’t know that I felt lost and unmentored.
Had I asked for some help, they would not have turned me away. Knowing what to ask for and when is important. But perhaps more important, watching my friends navigate grad school taught me that I needed to stop seeing myself as a student and instead view myself as a professional -- that I should pursue the projects I wanted to and then check in when appropriate. This changed not only my perception of graduate school but also faculty attitudes toward me. After all, they wanted to see that I was making progress, and as I shared my work, that gave us a common subject to discuss.
In some ways, my challenging experiences in grad school were good for me. I learned to work independently and at my own pace. I learned to step outside myself to think about what made others successful. But in other ways, it was clear -- and still is -- that something about the system needs to change.
What’s the Goal?
Reimagining yourself as a professional is an important step for anyone in a Ph.D. program, although it may be harder for some of us than others. I also strongly recommend that you find ways to embed yourself in a network of peers. Even if they are better at faking it, you’ll learn more sharing thoughts with each other. If you can rely on the wisdom of senior graduate students, even better. They’ve probably been where you are and want to help.
That said, success in graduate school shouldn’t be based on whether a person comes in with a better understanding of how to navigate the university. It also shouldn’t be based on luckily stumbling into the right social network -- or, in my case, board game group.
Now, after I've spent a year at UNC Pembroke, a handful of students have already told me they want to pursue graduate degrees. Two of them want to earn doctorates in sociology. As they get closer to application time, I plan to share many of these thoughts with them. Until we have better institutional supports for graduate students -- first gen or otherwise -- they should be aware that they can potentially shorten the learning curve by seeking out the right role models.
For their part, institutions should normalize conversations about how many graduate students struggle and feel lost. Who is helped by this artificial performance of ease? The sociologically grounded answer is those with the cultural capital to pull it off. The more idealistic answer is no one -- that the performance of ease limits our ability to get the answers and mentorship we need.
My best faculty mentors were generally the people I worked with as a teaching or research assistant. One person in particular often offered me the unsolicited and encouraging advice that, again, I didn’t even know I needed. For example, he once asked me to close his office door, his voice soft but stern. As I prepared for a verbal lashing, he said something to the effect of, “Matt, I appreciate that you care so much about our students, but you’re putting too much time into being a TA. Make sure you’re leaving enough time to work on your dissertation and manage a healthy work-life balance. Don’t let students consume your life.”
Graduate students, especially first-gen ones, need more professors like him. Colleges should consider baking these types of interactions into their institutional infrastructures. And even if they don’t, individual faculty can change their own advising strategies along these lines. This sort of intentional on-the-job mentorship is probably beneficial to everyone, but it may be disproportionately so to first-generation college graduates still learning to navigate the academy.
As a white, cisgender man from a financially stable family, I know I benefit from a great deal of privilege and that my experiences may not track with others’. I also know we need systematic change to adequately improve graduate school life for first-gen students. But I hope this piece has provided a few ideas as we all, at whatever stage of our career, work to navigate and improve the academy.