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Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature and American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliemleo.

My grandmother picked cotton from the time that she could walk until she was old enough to find work on a Chrysler assembly line, where she stayed until the jobs left and the plant closed. Today, her hands carry the kind of deep scars that resemble a tree struck by lightning, her knuckles thick knots of arthritis split down the side.

When we write first-generation stories, stories about being the first in our families to attend college or graduate school, we often focus on helping each other navigate spaces that are hostile to us. We publish articles on how to adapt and how to survive, catalogs of cheat codes to help each other decide what to wear, how to speak, what to ask of whom and how to get resources that others already access freely. The genre of first-gen writing helps us fake it and make it. It makes sense; we have to survive before we thrive, after all. But first-gen writing often doesn’t include the generational discomfort that first-gen students can carry.

Not all first-gen experiences are the same, but for first-gen scholars who, like me, carry their histories with them (willingly or not), it is important to learn how to attend to those histories in a caring way.

Bring Perspective

Sometimes it can be tempting to want, more than anything, to fit in to demanding academic spaces. But in assimilating to the academy, don’t forget that as a first-gen student you offer a unique perspective that is necessary in reshaping academia. Your peers, your students and the academy at large all benefit from your outlook. As part of the already large and diverse group of first-gen students and scholars, you bring necessary experiences from outside the academy and classroom. Such experiences can feel alienating at times, but perhaps it’s time to think about all of the ways in which those experiences make you a better scholar, student and instructor.

Bringing new perspective might mean grounding discussion in things taking place outside the academy, speaking from a place of knowledge that your peers don’t have access to, contributing a new voice at the table or providing your own first-gen students with sorely needed support and representation. However you make use of the experience of being first gen, it’s important to acknowledge that your academic work is stronger for that experience and that you have something important and new to contribute to the academy.

Recognize Your Tenacity

If you’re like many first-gen students, you may face impostor syndrome, which can keep you believing that you don’t belong in the spaces that you’re in and that you won’t belong in the spaces that you’re heading toward. But what if you looked backward instead of forward, honoring where you’ve been rather than worrying about where you’re headed? You’d undoubtedly find that you’ve already accomplished incredible things that demonstrate your ability and persistence. You may also find that same tenacity reflected in earlier family generations as well. These histories, of your own successes and those of your predecessors, can serve as a charm against the feelings of inadequacy that often accompany the first-gen experience.

So, if you’re feeling the pressure of academia crushing in on all sides, take a moment to breathe. Remember the work that went into getting here in the first place and remember that it was your own unrelenting drive that got you here. Being first gen means that you’re often left doing the work of academia without more traditional support structures. If that sounds familiar, then it’s time to honor yourself, your most reliable support structure.

Honor your Community’s Contributions to You

For first-gen students, there is often the added pressure of feeling like you can’t discuss your work or student life with your nonacademic family and friends. If you find yourself feeling isolated from your nonacademic family and friends, it can be worthwhile to remember all of the ways that they contributed to who you are now and where you are now.

When it comes to family, in particular, feelings can be complicated. As first-gen students, we can often carry intergenerational struggles and trauma around with us, whether we want to or not. Whatever your relationship to your family and your community, however, we can all at least agree that they led to you, and that’s a good thing.

Part of honoring your own tenacity also means honoring the tenacity of your community, friends and family and how they have significantly contributed to the person that you are, the work that you’re interested in pursuing or the habits that you carry with you in your everyday interactions. Sometimes moving forward means taking a necessary look back at where you’ve come from and, if nothing else, acknowledging how those people and places have formed you.

Find Someone to Talk To

No one can, or should have to, face down academia alone. First-gen students occupy a particular position that can make you feel isolated from your academic peers as well as nonacademic family and friends. That isolation can be enough to stop you in your tracks and keep you from making significant progress toward your goals. While other students may already have academic support structures in place -- places where they can ask questions, complain and connect with others -- first-gen students often have the difficult task of starting from scratch. Whether it’s a therapist, an adviser or other first-gen students, building a support structure for yourself is the best way to curb feelings of isolation, alienation and inadequacy.

You likely already know how important it can be to have the support of people who are also moving through academia (or who already have). Those people can offer aid, answer questions and make the process seem less isolating. However, having an emotional support system of people who understand the first-gen experience or who can help you navigate your own feelings about it is just as necessary.

How have you attended to your status as a first-gen student in a caring way?

[Image by user Flora Westbrook and used under a Creative Commons License]

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