When a First Gen Mom Watches Her Son Apply to College

I am suddenly aware of how different my parenting experience is from my own parents as I prepare the “second-gen” for college.

Only recently, my sister and I heard someone else use the term “first-gen” to describe our college degrees. We were chatting with an old friend who is now a professor at our alma mater. I mentioned my son’s upcoming college applications and briefly reflected on how anxious my own parents must have felt when I was 18.

“Since they didn’t go to college,” I glossed over my parents’ background, “they didn’t really know what college would mean for me.”

Our friend, without judgment, said: “Oh, I had no idea you guys were “first-gen.”

My experience as a “first-gen” was different than my sons will be. (Image via Amanda Calnan Vowels)

I had never considered that I was a “first-gen” college student

I had to pause to understand what she said. Did she just casually label me? I was offended and relieved. I was offended for my parents, who would have excelled at college if they’d been given a chance. I was relieved because my observations of class, belonging, and achievement suddenly made sense.

I was one of the thousands of “first-gen” students, but I’d never thought twice about it. For weeks, I couldn’t stop ruminating on the government classification and kept thinking, “there are so many other first-gen stories more hardscrabble than mine.”

Today, college admissions teams have an acronym and support for students who are the first in their families to attend college. They are labeled FGLI (first-generation, low-income) on forms. Lumping those two categories together makes no sense to me, but it was true for our family in 1994. Our parents’ lower income qualified me and my siblings for federal loans and aid.

First-gen was not used as casually back when I was in school

Nevertheless, the term “first-gen” was not thrown around so casually in the mid-90s. It might have existed in the hushed walls of admissions and financial aid offices, but it wasn’t in the lexicon of the average student. If kids in the dorm mentioned where their parents had gone to college, I probably didn’t recognize what a difference it meant to our college experiences. I assumed we were all on a level playing field. We’d all been accepted into our university, after all. I really couldn’t see how our backgrounds mattered.

Until now.

I realize now how many doors my college degree has opened for my teens

When I look at my teenagers, I’m aware of the doors that have already been opened for them by my degree and the sacrifices my parents—their grandparents—made.

In 1994, with my parent’s help, I applied for the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and for every public and private scholarship we could find. After that, it was up to the admissions and financial aid gods to determine my options.

My mom and dad put all three of their children through college with loans and hard-earned cash. My siblings and I all worked at on-campus jobs in addition to accepting private and government aid and grants. We also each signed the federal parent and student loan payment terms. I paid off my student loans years ago, but accessing those financial resources was a lifeline to college.

The closer we get to my son’s high school graduation next spring, the more I appreciate the history of my own student aid and loans.

I’m a bit sad thinking about what it was like for my parents to send me off to college

And I’m a bit melancholy reflecting on my parents’ misadventures of sending me off to college. As their firstborn, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. There was never a doubt I would go to a four-year university, yet, they had no point of reference for how college life would operate.

They also couldn’t fully anticipate there was fun to be had, relationships that would define my future, and professional networks I’d rely on. By the time they’d reached high school graduation, they were fully-fledged adults, supporting themselves and paying rent.

To this day, I carry a great deal of guilt that my mom and dad haven’t experienced academia for themselves. I can also now see how much pressure I carried as an 18-year-old, first-generation female college student. I was always working hard and never wasting a penny or an opportunity. I lived at home and commuted to campus my first year as I watched the other freshmen swarm the dorms and chat like old friends.

Living at home helped make college affordable for my family. It was also the loneliest year of my life. When I eventually moved into the dorms, my enthusiasm for campus life was electric. I buzzed with embarrassing levels of ambition, and my parents were my biggest cheerleaders — even if the nuanced, academic world I embodied must have screamed “privileged and elitist” to them.

Colleges pay much more attention to first-generation students these days

Marquette University‘s website directly addresses first-generation students with words of advice that give my 18-year-old self some comfort as I read them some 28 years too late.

“Despite the different backgrounds of first-generation college students, there is much more that you all may have in common. First-generation college students are often highly motivated and eager to excel in a college setting, but you may also encounter the following challenges:

You may feel the pressure to excel as the first in your family to make it to college.

You may find it difficult to relate to your peers who do not share the experience of being a first-generation college student.

You may have to learn the unspoken cultural norms and expectations of university life.

You may have to constantly explain the demands and rigors of college life to your friends and family.

I would add, “you may have to prioritize paid work on top of school while some of your classmates do not.

I see my own college now has an “official Instagram page for the University of Portland First generation community” with #up-fgen as a hashtag. It’s a support group for students with practical tips, jobs, events, and reminders to “EVERY FRIDAY WEAR YOUR FGEN T-SHIRT!”

I am impressed. There is no shame there, and it makes me so happy to see it.

My husband is also a first-generation graduate and paid every penny of tuition by working manual labor jobs, playing baseball for a partial scholarship, and taking federal loans. His parents’ only contribution was his childhood bedroom and meals. He drove to class, practice, and jobs across the state line. One of his on-campus jobs was humbly scrubbing the stains out of his teammates’ jerseys in the laundry room. He was captain of the baseball team at the time.

Today my husband and I are both professionals

Today, we are both professionals, with careers most certainly afforded by our degrees. We’ve prioritized mentoring, internships, and opportunities for young people in our fields.

Our son is applying to schools above our financial means and within our budget. But the cold hard fact is that college in the United States is unaffordable and unattainable to most — it’s a broken cost and payment system, even for the middle class.

Our own kids won’t qualify for the financial aid we received. And, even though we have the know-how to navigate the college process, we lack accumulated family wealth or a college trust. We carry no family legacies in the halls of Ivy or even state universities.

Maybe one day, education won’t require expensive degrees like we’ve all been told. Pursuing affordable education shouldn’t require herculean efforts or massive financial risk and sacrifice. Maybe when learning is affordable and widely accessible, we won’t have to classify first-generation students at all.

More Great Reading:

As a First Gen Student, I’ve Always Dreamed of the Day My Parents Would Watch Me Graduate

About Amanda Calnan Vowels

Amanda Calnan Vowels is an Oregon-based journalist and essayist who began writing in gritty, daily print newsrooms. She recently launched her firstborn off to college. Amanda keenly observes human nature, consumer trends, political climate, pop culture and emotion. Her complete portfolio is available at www.VowelsCommunications.com and at https://amandavowels.contently.com/. You can also follow her on Instagram.

Read more posts by Amanda

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