Being first at anything is hard, but being first at college is a bewildering and sometimes terrifying experience.
I work with a scholarship program at Northeastern University that funds students from underprivileged backgrounds; all are first-generation college attendees, most are from poor families, and with a few exceptions, either they or their parents are recent immigrants. This past week I gave a class simulation, offering a lecture on a complex political issue to a group of scholarship finalists. They were being judged on their responsiveness in the class, their ability to grasp the information and to process it. It was the end of a long interview day, and I could feel not only their exhaustion, but their need to prove themselves worthy of this award.
I feel a close affinity with this group: my mother was an immigrant from a large--and poor--family from a coal-mining area in Scotland, and my paternal grandmother and great grandmother were both immigrants, settling in blue collar areas. We were definitely a working class family and my generation of siblings and cousins were the first to attend college, a point of pride, but also skepticism from the older folks.
Getting to college was a tough road, mainly because it was unfamiliar territory to my parents, and frankly, my high school really didn't know what to do with the over-achievers, particularly the young women. Even if we did make it to college, the usual assumption was that most of us would settle down to a nice family life in North Carolina--the bachelor degree, our counselors and teachers knowingly joked, was really a great pathway to the Mrs. Degree. My grandparents strongly urged me to marry my boyfriend upon my high school graduation (even if he was a punk rock loser with piercings and a bad attitude), because they worried that college would leave me an impoverished spinster: higher ed seemed a silly luxury to them.
Once I made it to college, armed with scholarships, the first of many student loans, and a new coat, I had to learn how to navigate a new world of privilege that had never occurred to me. Here were fellow students who didn't have to work to earn money for books, let alone clothes. Here were invitations to homes that were larger and more richly appointed than I had ever seen. Here were assumptions about class from my peers and professors that didn't reflect my own lived experience. Thankfully I had always been a good student, but it became clear to me that I would have to work even harder to catch up to those who had had years of private education, tutoring, and summers at lake houses.
But nothing could prepare me for the sense of alienation that I felt returning to my hometown, where suddenly poverty was put in stark relief to the rolling hills and stately buildings of my college. Old friends treated me differently, and I really didn't fit in any longer--my aspirations were different and even considered odd. As my education progressed--BA, MA, and then Ph.D., I no longer had a place in that old world.
At school, I didn't know how to ask professors for help or how to challenge them in class (working class kids are taught obedience as well as pride). I didn't know how to navigate the financial aid system in a smart way (if you don't have money, it's hard to know what to do with it), and I didn't think strategically about my career (if you've never known anyone with a Ph.D., or law degree, or any kind of "career" how would you know what it looks like?).
As a mentor for several of these first generation college kids in my (increasingly elite) college, I try to hold on to these experiences, because I know they have faced them and will continue to struggle with them. First generation kids--and particularly those of immigrants--are forging their own paths. There is a lot at stake for them in this new world, one they may eventually collide with the old. I know they will succeed, but not with a sense of entitlement. More likely, as in my case, they will feel a sense of relief--and bewilderment and dislocation.
Boston, Massachusetts in the US.
Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus . She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization (Routledge 2010) and Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy  (Routledge 2013).