A lineup of first-generation college students at Macalester (from left): Tyler Skluzacek ’16 (New Prague, Minn.), Ian Calaway ’16 (Dubuque, Iowa), Jinath Tasnim ’16 (Dallas, Texas), and Christian Smith ’15 (Menomonie, Wis.).

Every summer of her college career, Jocelyne Cardona ’14 (San Jose, Calif.) wondered if this would be the year she couldn’t afford to return to campus. “It was always a struggle to know if I could financially work it out,” she says. Melissa Larson ’14 (Round Lake, Ill.) spent her college summers not traveling in Europe or racking up impressive internships but working as many hours as she could get at the nearby Six Flags amusement park. Jinath Tasnim ’16 (Dallas) regularly declines invitations from classmates to visit their East or West Coast homes. “There’s no way I could justify that expense to my parents,” she says.

Cardona, Larson, and Tasnim are members of a growing group at Macalester—those who are the first in their family to attend college, commonly called first-generation college students or First-Gens. Although the stereotypical Macalester student is the child of two financially comfortable and well-traveled faculty members—and yes, there are still plenty of those kids on campus— Mac’s population of first-generation students is growing. They now make up 11 percent of the student body, says Civic Engagement Center assistant director Ruth Janisch Lake, a percentage very likely to grow in the years ahead.

The reasons for that are demographic. As a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article pointed out, in our nation’s highest-income, highest-educated counties, the supply of younger children is dwindling. By contrast, the population of Hispanic children is growing rapidly throughout the United States, and many of those kids would be the first in their families to attend college. “Latinos and Latinas are the college students of 2020 and beyond,” says Vice President of Student Affairs Laurie Hamre. “Our challenge now is to build new services for a changing demographic.”

Even though their numbers are growing, First-Gens have historically been somewhat of a hidden population at Mac, says Janisch Lake. “It’s an important part of people’s identity but it’s not the first thing they tell you about themselves,” she says.

The reasons for that are fairly obvious. “Other students have traveled a lot and been exposed to literature and culture in a way very different from my own education,” says Tasnim. When Ian Calaway ’16 (Dubuque, Iowa) told classmates he’d never seen mountains or an ocean, they were shocked. “It’s strange being in a class where so many people’s parents are college professors or top politicians,” says Tyler Skluzacek ’16 (New Prague, Minn.), whose own parents are a school bus driver and a U.S. army veteran now working in a car dealership’s service department.

Too, there can be a sense of guilt attending an elite college while parents back home work at physically demanding jobs. “My Dad does manual labor as an electrician while I’m at school enjoying the privilege of sitting with my thoughts,” says Cardona. “That stark difference has complicated my college experience.”

Then there are the economic hurdles many First-Gens must overcome. Although Macalester makes it financially feasible for low-income kids to attend college, says Multicultural Life staffer Sedric McClure, plenty of expenses remain that can put a strain on them. “Even buying books was an issue for me some semesters,” says Cardona. And unlike many of their classmates, who can call on parents for extra money, First-Gens may actually be sending their own money home. That was the case for Cardona one summer, when her parents hit a rough patch and she found herself with a small surplus of funds.

More subtle but just as problematic are the casual invitations to attend a performance or to join friends for a restaurant meal. “There’s a culture around here of kids suggesting that everyone go out for dinner or saying, ‘Let’s go to a concert this weekend,’” says Skluzacek. He has found that many of his fellow students don’t realize that not everyone can afford to be cavalier with their spending money.

For her part, Tasnim is incredulous when classmates complain about the residence halls or cafeteria food. “Being First-Gen means taking nothing for granted,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how nice the dorms were and how good the food was. To me it’s like: all this food is here and it’s free? Great!”

Another disadvantage First-Gens confront is their lack of knowledge about college in general and how it works. “It was the small things that tripped me up,” says Badhaftu Kadir ’14 (St. Paul). “The first semester I didn’t know you could add or drop classes. Or on the FAFSA (financial aid forms) when I applied to college: It was me trying to get information from my parents and figuring out where to put it.” Skluzacek, who also did his own FAFSA, admits, “I had no idea what the difference was between a big university and a liberal arts college.”

Taken together, those experiences can make the college transition feel especially difficult for First-Gen students. “I felt disempowered and didn’t even have the language to navigate this space,” says Cardona, who nearly dropped out during her freshman year. “I had a hard time adjusting to the change.”

Fortunately for future First-Gens, Macalester is now providing programming to help make that transition to college more comfortable. For example, last fall’s orientation week marked the first time that “New to College” sessions were held for First-Gens and their parents. The students liked the program so much they chose to meet again later in the year to support and learn from one another.

Last year an equity and inclusion task force made up of students and staff met regularly to draft recommendations for improving both the admissions process and the school experience for First-Gens as well as for undocumented and immigrant students (many of whom are also First-Gen). Among the task force’s recommendations: To enhance the Admissions website with Spanish and Hmong pages; to provide regular support groups; to give this group special attention at the Career Development Center; and to identify two staff people as First-Gen counselors.

“There can be a sense of isolation and disconnection for first-generation students.”
—Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, Assistant Dean of Students

“There can be a sense of isolation and disconnection for first-generation students,” says assistant dean of students Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, a member of the task force. “Whenever we can, we hope to create more spaces where these students can connect with their peers.”

Two existing campus programs—Bonner Scholars and Emerging Scholars—the former designed primarily for First-Gens—are already helping. Janisch Lake and McClure, who lead these programs, offer joint programming for the groups, including a city tour and sessions on time management, library research, and using the writing center. Says Cardona, an Emerging Scholar who at year’s end was interviewing for jobs in Washington, D.C., “These support systems, including the Department of Multicultural Life, were so key in my success. I wouldn’t have felt validated and empowered without them.” DML staffers and others also help First-Gens navigate such college intricacies as what the various majors involve, how they can afford to study abroad, and where they can find paid internships.

Those internships—and the jobs they lead to—are particularly important to many First-Gens, many of whom arrive at college with an especially keen focus on earning a good living. “Some of their family members think that anyone who graduates from college is going to make a lot of money,” says McClure, himself a First-Gen. “There’s a lot of pressure on you when you’re running the first leg of the race out of poverty.” Says political science major Kadir, whose parents had a typical reaction, “They thought I should major in economics so I could get a good job.”

Faculty and staff strive to help these kids “reconcile the twin outcomes of education—learning and making a living,” as McClure puts it, while recognizing that the need to earn a decent salary is understandably more critical to them than it might be to some of their peers. “I’m the only child of an immigrant,” Merita Bushi ’14 told the orientation group last fall. “The pressure on me fuels my drive.”

“They have a strong feeling of responsibility, and you see this job question come up really early with them,” says Janisch Lake. “As first years, not just as second-semester seniors, they’re asking, ‘How does this major translate to a career?’” Or as math and economics major Skluzacek puts it, “Ever since day one I’ve had my eye on a career. I want better for myself than what my parents had.”

On the other hand, adds Skluzacek, who is also a Bonner scholar, “The advantage of being First-Gen is that, unlike lots of kids here, I don’t have to be afraid of not measuring up to my parents’ expectations. They’re thrilled I’m going to college, period. In their eyes, there’s no difference between Macalester and Mankato State. It frees me up to operate on my own terms.”

Macalester also strives to give First-Gens the same advantages outside the classroom that their more privileged peers enjoy. For example, Bonner scholars earn their work-study money by working in off-campus nonprofits, thus allowing them to do service work while earning their pay. Advisers clue them into paid summer fellowships and internships and tell them about Gilman Scholarships, which help lower-income students finance overseas study. “Without that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to study abroad,” says Salman Haji ’14 (Albuquerque, N.M.). “Everything is so expensive in Europe.”

Graduate school, too, can seem like an impossible dream for First-Gens, but some make it happen nevertheless. Haji, for example, with help from his professors and other campus advisers, recently won a Pickering Fellowship from the U.S. State Department that gives him two summers of work experience plus two years of tuition. As a senior, Haji balanced three jobs—as a middle school assistant, a Russian tutor, and an Arabic lab preceptor.

That willingness to work hard, by the way, tops the list of advantages enjoyed by First-Gens. “These kids have a set of experiences we don’t often celebrate but that are fundamental to success,” says Hart Ruthenbeck. “There’s a maturity in them and an ability to engage with challenges without being defeated. Unlike many of our students, they don’t look to parents to make decisions for them. They’ve had to do a lot more problem solving on their own, while still operating within the sense of support and hope from all the people back home.”

This year, for the first time, the hopes and dreams of those folks back home were celebrated at Commencement, when 100 family members of First-Gen graduates attended a gathering called Honoring the Journey. “These students have told us this is a big rite of passage for the whole family,” says Janisch Lake. “They want their families to feel especially honored at this time.” At the ceremony—and later—it was obvious that this goal had been met. As one student wrote to Hart Ruthenbeck, “Seeing my First-Gen identity celebrated, my families’ sacrifices acknowledged, and hearing beautiful speeches from fellow First-Gens gave me insight, encouragement, and bravery to continue being a bridge.”

Reflecting on those feelings, Calaway says, “I have great pride in my parents and in my situation. I come from a family where higher education, especially in the sciences, is rare. It’s untested waters. I’m excited to see where I can go and what I can do—how far can I jump?”

In the decades to come, as more and more college students are First-Gens, it will be Macalester’s challenge to help them successfully make those leaps.

August 8 2014

Back to top