Campus community overlooks first-generation experience

Adriana Saso-Graves, Staff Writer

First-generation students comprise a small percentage of the campus population at Macalester. I am one of them. While a number of Macalester community members have made strides in supporting us, the majority fail to consider first-gen status to be a significant factor of the college experience, or in the worst cases, not at all. It should be noted that I also come from a low-income background.

Poverty, food insecurity, rent-assistance and homelessness are probably not what come to mind when you think of Macalester, but there are students — like me — who are currently experiencing or have experienced exactly that.

Because Macalester is constantly referred to as affordable and generous (which it no doubt is), it’s easy to think that affordability looks the same to everyone. Unfortunately, this results in silence surrounding students’ struggles. While I can only speak for myself, I hope to aid in the visibility of first-gen students and remind folks that Macalester is not entirely socioeconomically homogenous.

I am angry, and I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t. I am angry that first-gen students are neither seen nor heard. I am angry that I can’t relate to the experiences of most students at Macalester. I am angry that my parents couldn’t help me apply to colleges or explain to me how to take out a loan or buy my textbooks for me. My identity grows more dissonant the longer I spend in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood.

It’s incredibly difficult to feel like I belong here when I have had to sacrifice so much of myself to fit in. I don’t quite belong at home anymore, but I certainly don’t fit in with the culture here.

At Macalester, we wonder which internships, fellowships and scholarships we’re going to apply for. Will you be going to graduate school? Applying for a Fulbright? Doing research?

At home, the questions we ask ourselves are quite different. Which bill am I going to have to skip this month? How long can I avoid going to the doctor? Do I have a place to go if I can’t make rent again? I feel the furthest away from myself that I have ever been. Being a student at Macalester forces me to prioritize a new culture that disregards my roots and for that I am angry — but the challenges that I would eventually face as a first-gen student took root long before college.

Going to college was fully my decision, meaning it was also a self-funded decision. Attending a school with less than a 100 percent need-met status was not an option, which meant every card had to be played perfectly.

My parents both wished me luck in the process and that was the extent of their advice. I have seen my mother cry twice in my life — once was when I got into Macalester. Everyday I live with the knowledge that yes, I got in — and yes, I am here — but there is no dropping out, no transferring, no changing my mind. And there was no one to warn me that getting in wasn’t even half the battle.

The reality of being first-gen/low-income at Macalester is harsh. As students of a prestigious liberal arts college, we are expected to maintain high GPAs, be community leaders, found and join organizations and volunteer.

But how is that realistic when I don’t even know if I can afford my textbooks? How can I be a community leader when I have to have three jobs to afford my education?

What about when I can’t take the most pragmatic classes because they conflict with my work schedule? Or when I can’t afford to take the bus to volunteer because I have exactly $12.39 to last me a whole month? How am I ever supposed to accept an unpaid internship?

The response to my struggle has often been, “Why don’t you just talk about it? I’m sure people would be accepting and willing to learn if they only knew.” This I find to be true, but only in part.

Firstly, it is not my job to demystify basic facts of life to other young adults such as “college costs money.” Secondly, with most encounters, talking about it at all has further ostracized me, or I’ve had to buffer the truth so as to not affect anyone’s sensibilities. In response to my story or my experiences, people have said things like “Well, at least Macalester gives you financial aid.”

This comment has by far been the most infuriating and debilitating for me personally. First-gen students are made to feel as if our only right as members of this community is to be grateful that we are here in the first place. We have to earn the right to feel as though we belong here — only to have it thrown back in our faces, constantly reminded that the only reason we have access to this community and its resources is financial aid.

The aforementioned split in my sense of belonging has manifested in two distinct ways: imposter syndrome and breakaway guilt, both common phenomena among first-generation students.

Imposter syndrome in particular has plagued my Macalester experience. Why don’t I speak three languages? I don’t play any instruments. I can’t write like these kids can. They’re going to find out I’m dumb. Why don’t I know anything?

I don’t stand a chance. The difference in the upbringing, resources and expectations my peers had when compared to those I had is striking.

The knowledge they have accumulated from spending time around college-educated folks, going to summer camps and having tutors and private lessons has prepared them for college in a way that I could never make up for on my own. This unforeseen deficit left me awash in feeling as though I were less-than.

During my first year, there was an emotional phone call in which my stepmom grabbed the phone from my dad and said “You got out of here. Enjoy it. Don’t worry about us, and don’t look back.” This, of course, invoked a feeling of pride and honor, but also reinforced the omnipresent fear of doing college “wrong.”

If I am miserable and despondent, then I am doing a disservice to all the people who helped me to actualize this dream.

If I am vapid and indulgent, then I do not honor the gravity of the sacrifice. Tension and guilt weigh heavily on my shoulders at every turn. Our college experience is a debt we owe to our family, our successors, our communities.

When asked why I chose Macalester, I long for the luxury of saying “the average class size, the location, the research opportunities,” but none of that really matters. For me, college was — and still is — a financial contract in which the benefits must outweigh the cost.

Some Macalester students may have never asked themselves questions like “Who am I hurting if I go to college? Who am I helping? Will it be worth it? Can I afford it?” and may have never even considered the possibility of not going to college, even though that is the reality of the majority of people, not just in the U.S., but in the world. 

In no way should this article be taken to mean that everyone is absolved of life’s struggles. My intent is to speak on the oversight of first-gen experiences amongst some of our peers and faculty and to remind folks that going to college is not a “given,” or even an expectation, for most of the country (as unfortunate as that may be).

Finally, I want to show gratitude to the people and organizations on campus that work tirelessly to make Macalester more accessible.

To the First-Gen Identity Collective: Thank you for your efforts in organizing and for the awesome sweatshirts.

To the Macalester College Student Government and the Rosenberg family: Thank you for funding the student pantry.

To Career Exploration & the Civic Engagement Center: Thank you for offering resources, including transportation and housing so that students can be involved community members.

To the community and/or alumni donors, as well as the Macalester Fund staff: Thank you for supporting financial aid at Macalester and ensuring that we are able to continue supporting students.

To the first-generation professors: Your representation in the classroom is cherished and gives me hope.

To my fellow first-generation students: Thank you for your absolute resilience. Some of you are doing your best to survive for this degree. I see you. I am proud of you. Please know you are not alone and you are a valuable member of this community. We ourselves may not even realize it, but we are here. And better yet? We deserve to be.