December 28, 2020

“On Your Time”: First Generation College Student's Reflections

Colby King author photo Colby King author photo E_Miller
Colby King author photoBy Colby King, Mo Swint, Emma Miller, and Wren Bareiss 

Mo Swint and Emma Miller are sociology majors at USC Upstate; Wren Bareiss is an Associate Professor of Communication at USC Upstate

If you’re among the first generation in your family to get, or on your way to getting, a college degree, you’re not alone.

Dr. King was the first in his family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, and he has written about his first generation college perspective here for the Working-Class Perspectives Blog. He has also written here at the Everyday Sociology Blog about how useful it can be for first generation college students to find models of success that they can follow, and about how building diverse social networks while in college can be a really valuable exercise, especially for first generation college students. The four authors shared their stories as part of a panel at Class Action’s annual First Generation College Student Summit, which was held remotely on Saturday, November 14.

Emma Miller and Mo Swint are sociology majors and first-generation college students who have compelling stories about their college achievements and are on their way to graduation this year.

We think many college students will identify with aspects of their first generation college student stories. At nearly 50 years old, Emma is older than the typical college student. She enrolled in college after more than 25 years working in media. Sixteen years ago, she had an unplanned pregnancy, and now her child is taking college classes while Emma is completing her own degree.

Emma began her college journey at a community college, and transferred twice, taking time off each time, before enrolling at USC Upstate. Last spring, she was living with her husband, mother-in-law, her child and a special needs stepchild, and just as the pandemic set in, her husband asked for a divorce. She has managed the variety of challenges this brought to her, in part, she says, because she learned about the necessity of being flexible amid changes. She recommends to other students: “Don’t be afraid to evolve throughout the process of your first gen experience.”

As a non-traditional student with a child, Emma’s mother sometimes asks her, “Why are you in school again?” Her consistent response is “because I need to be.” This illustrates her commitment to college, and to her sociology degree. She is not just taking some classes because she is curious. She is exploring post-graduation possibilities, including applying to graduate school. She credits her professors for helping her realize that grad school can be for someone like her and she hopes, through her work, she can help improve the institutions and social structures encountered by children in the child welfare system.

“College wasn’t for me when I graduated high school. The years I have acquired since then have given me a sense of purpose and have fine-tuned why I am in school.” This quote not only illustrates how her experiences have shaped her interest and commitment to college, but also it demonstrates how college can be about different things for different students. The lesson I took from this is that there is no one right way to be a college student, except the way that works for you, yourself.

Emma elaborates:

I had never considered that there were other first-generation college students, like me, who also had a feeling of isolation. As a non-traditional student, I fought against my own self-recrimination over being “an adult,” and struggled navigating the college experience. When I heard other students in different panel discussions talking about imposter syndrome and needing a support network beyond immediate family, it solidified that college is navigable. And even though I am non-traditional and first gen, I am not alone, and I am definitely welcome.

Our second student, Mo Swint, is juggling a lot as well. This was made somewhat obvious as she joined our panel discussion from her car. She explained before we got started, it was the quietest place she could find after just completing a shift at work. Mo works full time as a manager at a local Wal-Mart while juggling a full load of college courses. Mo grew up south of Columbia, South Carolina in a rural area. “It’s the country,” she says. “My graduating high school class was 54 people.”

Mo has also had a non-standard, if not entirely atypical, journey through college. At the outset of her junior year, she and her family encountered unexpected financial hardships, and she felt the only way she could gain control over her circumstances was to take a semester off. This may have been wise, but in the moment she felt like a “failure.” She had been class president in high school, and during that semester, she felt that she was a “dropout.”

But, she used the time to get her work and financial situation under control. And, importantly, she also learned a lot about how she was approaching college. She found that during this time off from college, she recognized that she was not prepared to juggle coursework and work well and that she was too disorganized. So, once she was able to return to college, she focused on prioritization and organization. College students juggling multiple responsibilities should “find your own plan.” After she returned to college, she took on her courses with clear personal goals, and earned her way onto the Dean’s List.

Since then, things have continued to be challenging. She works as a full-time supervisor, and because of the pandemic, has accumulated extra hours. As a result, she experiences a lot of stress from work. She has also had to quarantine twice because of being exposed to COVID-19 at work. She did not test positive after either exposure, but still had to leave work for two weeks each time, with the first leave being unpaid. Although that was stressful, Mo did acknowledge that both leaves gave her opportunities to catch up on coursework and rest. Identifying goals, staying organized, and making time for rest and self-care have been critical to her success.

Dr. Bareiss notes that being a first-generation college student is not always a bad thing. For example, it does give you perspective. He also emphasizes that most first-generation college students develop resiliency and resourcefulness that are incredibly useful in life beyond college. His own story resonated with Emma’s and Mo’s. While in college, he dropped out for a year and worked in a factory before eventually returning to college and then going on to earn his PhD and becoming a professor.

Even after earning his PhD and publishing his research, Dr. Bareiss never felt at home in academia, so he drifted from teaching job to teaching job for several years. “We take our own paths.” Now, even with more than 20 years of full-time teaching and research behind him, he still feels out of place in academia.

If you’re working toward your college degree now, we hope you might be reassured by our stories. Amid this pandemic, with the shift to remote learning and the uncertainties on all of our college campuses, you might feel the challenges are mounting or that you’re straying off the path to your degree. But please take with you a lesson from all three of these first-generation college student stories: there is more than one way to do college well. As Mo said herself, “Your degree comes on your time! It does not have to be four years.”

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