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A Guide for First-Generation, Working-Class Graduate Students

Advice for those who feel like they’re straddling two worlds: one where they’re unsure they belong and another where their upward mobility is not understood

During my senior year of high school, I applied to dozens of colleges, eager to finally prove to myself that I could “make it out” of my low-income neighborhood. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would soon adopt the academic identity first-generation, working-class (FGWC) student—meaning that I come from a working-class background and would become the first in my family to graduate college.

When decision day rolled around, I opted for the large, nonselective public university in my hometown. Despite my fantasies of moving away to a prestigious university in a big city, the financial and logistical realities of my situation led me elsewhere. When I told one of my teachers about this decision, she simply said, “Don’t worry, you’ll move away for graduate school instead.” That was the first time I’d heard about graduate school and that it could be a possibility for me.

Confronting Isolation

For many FGWC graduate students, pursuing an advanced degree means moving away from home or going to a nearby institution with drastically different characteristics than their home community. While this experience allows one to get to know themselves and assume a sense of independence, it can be isolating. In her book Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, Jennifer M. Morton discusses how isolation is a cost that FGWC students pay when they feel that their success comes at the detriment of the people they love.

But how does this differ for undergraduate and graduate FGWC students? Unlike undergraduate programs, which often offer specific resources for first-generation students, graduate programs are typically small and insulated from the rest of the campus. It can be difficult to find a variety of people to build community with. In my graduate program, most of my peers have parents who not only have a four-year degree but have also even gone to graduate school.

I found myself navigating new social norms of a small, private, highly selective institution and its student body, whose lives and experiences differed drastically from my own. Although I’m fortunate to have wonderful colleagues in my immediate professional circle, I often question, “Where do FGWC students fit in the academy?” Our invisibility at many graduate schools, as well as sometimes marginalization, makes it no surprise that working-class students report lower sense of belonging than their middle- and upper-class peers. I was desperate to find mutual aid and support and fell into a common mistake of FGWC students: oversharing. I thought, “If I just explain more about myself, they’ll realize I’m not that different.” It didn’t work. In fact, I would leave such interactions with peers feeling even more alienated.

But when I voiced my sense of isolation to my support system back home, it was hard to articulate the difficulties I faced. Those people had invested in me. They believed in me. Figuring out how to articulate my struggle navigating a new space felt selfish and out of touch. After all, pursuing higher education is a privilege that many in my community are not afforded. Who was I to complain? So when catching up with well-meaning family and friends, rather than explain my challenges and insecurities, I simply said, “The classes are really difficult.” Ultimately, I have found myself straddling two social worlds: one where I feel unsure that I belong and another where my reality as an upwardly mobile professional is not understood.

Reconciling Working-Class Mannerisms With Middle-Class Culture

When I was offered a competitive fellowship for my graduate program, I was beside myself with excitement—I’d secured thousands of dollars for my studies. Yet I quickly found that non-FGWC students weren’t quite as thrilled. To them, it wasn’t much money at all. Don’t get me wrong, graduate training in this country can be exploitative, and we should all support union efforts to pay graduate students a livable wage. But for someone from a FGWC background, I would be making more money at 22 than my mom did for most of my adolescence. Those experiences are typical of FGWC students, who often work multiple jobs throughout both undergraduate and graduate school to support themselves and their families.

Upon this realization, I felt naïve for believing that I had “made it.” Moreover, by not knowing the customs, lingo and inner politics of the academic bureaucracy, I constantly felt that I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t have the knack of dropping well-known researchers’ names in passing conversation. I didn’t know what “esoteric” or “dramaturgy” meant. And I honestly can’t say I knew how to pronounce important European names like Michel Foucault’s. Those mistakes continuously highlighted and reinforced my otherness. From the outside, such small moments of being out of sync might seem unimportant, but to FGWC students like me, they exemplify why we often experience intense forms of impostor syndrome.

Tips to Survive (and Thrive) in Your First Year

As I’ve progressed in grad school, however, I’ve learned some lessons that I’d like to share with other students like me. The most basic one: if you are a FGWC student, you are not alone, even if it feels like it. Leaning on the support and experiences of people in your community can make navigating your first year more manageable. In fact, it’s one of the three C’s that I’ve adopted and recommend you consider as well.

Creating community within your institution may be easier said than done, but it is essential. And it must be radical, wherever you find it, in the way that feminist scholar Kathie Sarachild defines radical as getting to the root of social problems. This is key for scholars confronting inequality in academic spaces. For FGWC graduate students, finding people with shared experiences is essential to our capacity for critical conversations about higher education. And that can happen in a variety of ways. You may find blogs, books or social media accounts from authors that validate your experiences. I’ve personally found comfort and support from nonacademic authors who write about their working-class lives.

  • Consciousness-raising. Part of the hidden workload for FGWC students is recognizing what behaviors, values and skills are prioritized at their college or university. For example, “weed-out” classes can systematically filter out students who don’t fit neatly into cultural or intellectual institutional norms. Accumulating language to articulate those experiences and disparities is an important way to engage in consciousness-raising about how institutions need to reconsider the assumptions on which they base their policies and practices.

For me, this involved rethinking how to navigate exclusive spaces while holding on to the values of my community and to translate what I learn in ways that support other FGWC students. My mentorship and collaboration with other FGWC students are a few of the ways I work to leave the door open behind me. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins describes this as an “outsider within” status in which one holds different perspectives on taken-for-granted assumptions because their race, class and/or gender identity do not match hegemonic academic spaces. Our contexts as FGWC students shape our world outlook, and once I recognized that, I realized how valuable my insights really were.

  • Claiming space. Though not always validated, your experiences as a FGWC student are always valuable. Our perspectives complicate traditionally held ways of thinking in the academy, yet our insights are highly beneficial as well. Departments and institutions are eager to advertise and recruit the “new majority” of students—but their advocacy often ends there.

Be strategic about sharing your experiences and allow them to foster a sense of belonging among other FGWC students that challenges the dominant structure of the academy. In the face of growing commodification of FGWC students’ experiences, resist this pressure by carving your own space. Scholar Tara Yosso defines this as resistant capital, or “knowledge and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality.” One way I do this is through my research on FGWC student experiences. But perhaps more important, resistant capital means practicing affirmations of your worth and ability that reject negative messages about who belongs in higher education.

You Can Do This

A mentor once told me, “Whatever you do, don’t quit during your first year.” Of course, I thought about quitting every day. But looking back, I understand what she meant. It isn’t about the degree or external affirmation—it’s about a commitment to yourself despite the challenges. As you move through your graduate program, remember that you are adapting to a system that wasn’t built for you. But that shouldn’t stop you. Gather the information you need to succeed and resist narratives that attempt to dissuade you of your brilliance. In the end, only you can define success for yourself, and the rest of us will be cheering for you when you do.

Lauren Harvey is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Rice University and a first-generation, working-class college student.

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