Coalition for Women's Identities

Advice to A First Generation Graduate Student—The Struggle Continues

As I began to speak with other student affairs colleagues about their experience in graduate school thus far, I noticed a trend emerging from those who were first generation undergraduate students. Despite our (for I include myself in this population) awareness of various resources on campus as student affairs professionals and graduates of four-year institutions, there was no connection to how we could use these resources as graduate students. While as student affairs professionals we can connect our students to resources, the lack of the explicit “You are a student too and you can therefore utilize these resources as well” and the lower levels of social capital needed to navigate higher education institutions impact how first generation graduate students navigate their experience. So, the struggle continues.

These are just a few strategies I have thought about to navigate graduate school as a first generation graduate student, some of which stem from hindsight and some I have utilized:

Identify and Locate Campus Resources.

Before arriving to campus, identify resources you used as an undergraduate. Then, evaluate whether these resources were helpful in navigating through your collegiate experience. Although you are still first generation, you have already completed your first “rodeo” and the terms are not completely foreign. You have already gained significant social capital around what to expect. Trust that you have the knowledge and skill sets to learn what you do not have.

After arriving to campus, walk around to become familiar with the new institution. How far is it to walk from class? Where is the career center? Whatever questions come up for you—answer them through the walk around campus. This does not have to be alone. Reach out the admissions office and join a walking tour of prospective/accepted students. When I arrived to the University of Vermont I rode the campus bus several times a day to acclimate myself to where things were. I spoke with the bus driver and asked about buildings we were not stopping at. I worked to build connections and learn what was going on around me. This is another essential step as a first generation graduate student—create your support network and build familiarity.

Create Your Support Network

When I left Bronx, NY to attend Wheaton College, I also left behind my family and my friends. I felt lost when I arrived on campus. This feeling came back when I started graduate school. As a first generation graduate student, I could not go home and ask my family what it means to be a graduate student. Yet, I felt empowered because I at least had a better understanding of questions to ask and resources to locate. So after identifying campus resources and centers I began to make “appointments” with people to construct my support network.

Some of the essential “appointments” first generation graduate students should set up;

Academic:

Research Librarian. Different campuses have different resources. Schedule a meeting with the research librarian assigned to your department or field of study.The research librarian will help you save a significant amount of time in researching and developing your papers and research proposals.

Writing Center. Just as there was an elevated level of quality and quantity of work from high school to undergrad there are elevated levels of quality and quantity of work from undergrad to graduate school. Begin by setting up appointments at the writing center before they are completely booked even if you do not have your assignments yet.

With Professors. After your first class with the professor schedule an appointment with them during office hours immediately. Write a set of questions to ask them and enter the space with the mindset that they do not know anything about you and your interest. It is your job to dialogue and engage with them. The goal is build a relationship with them and make yourself visible.

Social:

With Other Professionals. Through training I was able to build connections with those in my department--both graduates and full-time professionals. If this is not built in for you, begin to schedule lunch on people’s calendar. The goal is to start building a relationship with them and find a network of those who can understand struggles you may encounter as your program goes on.

With Friends & Friends. Do not forget your friends and family back home and from your previous institution. While your family and friends may not understand what it means to be a first generation graduate student, they are pillars of support to talk about life outside of the professional world and outside of academics. It is a wonderful reminder that you have cheerleaders cheering you on towards success and completion of your degree.

Personal:

Counseling Center. Transition is difficult and you will encounter new challenges and obstacles. Be proactive in taking care of your mental health and schedule an initial appointment with a counselor. Counselors can also help talk about things your family and friends cannot understand or have the full context form.

Health & Wellness/Self-Care. Build in your schedule the chance to go to the gym and schedule an appointment to learn about what your student health insurance (if applicable) covers. As an undergraduate I under utilized this service—and lost out on free eye exams and dental check-ups. Graduate school is the space for you to continue to developing and learning about self-care.

This list is not exhaustive of all the things a first generation graduate student can do to navigate graduate school. Some people may say, “This list can be applied to undergraduate as well”, in part—that is the point. As a first generation graduate student you do not have to reinvent the wheel or as I stated earlier “this is not your first rodeo”. The tools for success as a graduate student is usually the same tools you used as an undergraduate to succeed.

I am writing here to serve as a reminder of what to do. This information may seem obvious, but transparency is key and that helps first generation graduate students, such as myself, realize the amount of social capital we have gained from our undergraduate collegiate experience but are not consciously aware of. I welcome for others to add to this list and to reach out to me to learn of other strategies I have used.

Atiya McGhee

University of Vermont

Assistant Residence Director

[email protected]

Twitter: xAatiyahx