Even on his first day of college, first-generation student David Huynh (B.S. ’15) felt like he was already behind.
Huynh’s high school didn’t offer AP Calculus, and in his first math class he heard his fellow students casually throw around the word “derivative.” Huynh had no idea what they were talking about. That meant that in addition to doing the regular homework, Huynh had to spend time catching up. “I’m astounded by how much I had to teach myself just to survive,” he says.
First-gen student Candyce Hill (A.B. ’12) noticed other differences. She heard about how many of her classmates had traveled across the United States and abroad, and how their parents had done much of the college administrative work for them.
While her friends’ parents signed them up for orientation and housing, Hill had to figure those things out herself. “It turns out that I knew a lot of things about my housing contract that my peers didn’t know,” she says, “because I read it.”
Carley Flanery (A.B ’12, M.S.W. ’14, M.P.H. ’14) had never even heard the term “first-generation” before college. Flanery was the only one from her high school to go to college more than a couple of hours from home. Being at U-M was exciting, she says, and she had strong family support, but she missed life at home. Her friends were getting married and raising children. It was easy to feel alone.
But Flanery wasn’t. LSA’s First-Gens @ Michigan exists to support students like Huynh, Hill, and Flanery, to give them a team of faculty advisors and a community of like-minded students. First-generation students may be the first in their families to get a degree, but at U-M, they don’t have to forge the path by themselves.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Housed in LSA’s Department of Sociology, the First-Gens @ Michigan group is open to all first-generation undergraduate students regardless of major or school. Founded in 2007, the group organizes regular meetings and events for its members.
It also provides a support group of friends that share an intuitive understanding of what it’s like to be a first-generation student: spending your summer working while friends travel, or suffering the sting of a comment made by someone who assumes everyone else in the room has had the same opportunities.
“It’s hard to overestimate the anxieties that first-generation students—and their families—feel,” says Dwight Lang, a lecturer in sociology, one of the group’s faculty advisors, and a former first-generation student himself. To outsiders, first-generation students often represent upward mobility, opportunity, and the American dream, Lang says, and there’s no arguing about the tremendous opportunities that these students have created for themselves.
But while all students leave home and separate from their family when they go to college, first-generation students are faced with the challenge of doing all of that while also acclimating to a socioeconomic climate often starkly different than the one they came from, and an environment that their parents never experienced and cannot help them with.
“These students are crossing class boundaries,” says Lang, “often for the first time in their lives. It’s important that we say, ‘You deserve to be here.’ That message makes such a difference.”
Sacrifice and Success
College ultimately prepares students for life after graduation, and the First-Gens @ Michigan group seeks to do the same. “College is a four-year opportunity to learn how to deal with people who don’t understand where you come from,” Lang advises the students. “I encourage students to be open. It’s a time to become comfortable with who you are and who you’re becoming as you’re acquiring a new identity”—all crucial skills for life after college.
Aspects of cultivating that identity had particular resonance for Hill because they were novel. “My sophomore year, my roommate was an international student. Before I came to U-M, I might have passed someone from another part of the world in the mall, but I’d never had the chance to actually talk to them,” she says. “That access and proximity gave me a feeling of wonder, and that feeling never changed.”
Flanery remembers when Greg Merritt (M.S. ’95), the senior associate director of University housing and a first-generation student advisor, sought her out to ask about her decision to go to graduate school.
“He asked me why I wanted this degree, how it helped my career objectives. I didn’t even have career objectives,” she says. “He helped me think about my decision and to be intentional. I would not have been able to do that on my own, to ask myself those questions.”
And First-Gens @ Michigan is expanding. In 2015, U-M graduated 340 first-generation students with bachelor’s degrees—its largest class yet. And the First-Gens @ Michigan group has grown big enough to hold its own graduation, as well as a dinner with support from the Provost’s office.
“It felt surreal to walk through the Big House,” recalls Huynh. “It made me so happy to have my parents see me graduate. I can’t overstate how much they sacrificed for me, and how much of their lives were lived out for my benefit. It breaks my heart that they didn’t have the opportunities I had. They lived out their ideal lives through me, and I felt overwhelmed to see my parents watch me as I walked down in my cap and gown, and to be able to say, ‘I made it, Mom and Dad.’”