As I start to approach the beginning of my graduate academic career, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on my undergraduate experience. For a lot of students, an undergraduate education is the automatic decision immediately following high school. For those of us who are first-generation students, our college experience wasn’t a “given.” Growing up in a single-parent household, I knew what it meant to work hard for things I didn’t have, one of those being my college education.
Being a first-generation student is a huge challenge. As a scholarship/grant student at Saint Vincent College, I got into the habit of writing tons of essays in hope of the opportunity of attending college. I had over 8 work study jobs throughout my 4 years of school in order to pay off the additional fees. I also went in with no understanding of proper study skills and had to navigate my way through trial and error a lot of times (that usually began with a lot of procrastination).
Regardless, I learned a lot as a first-generation student that I take into my daily work in Residence Life. Many of our students are either first-generation or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. A lot of them have multiple jobs and scholarships. I’ve learned not to scold students for not sleeping enough, but to encourage healthier habits when they have the time. Unfortunately, with multiple jobs and excessive amounts of homework, students often don’t have the ability to go to bed as early as we would expect them to. I’ve learned to take a step back when a student is being combative or unresponsive in a conversation or situation. Everyone is going through a different struggle and some of those struggles are worse than others. I’ve also learned to “fight” for my “kids.” When I was a hall director in my previous job, I had a student who couldn’t afford to attend the institution. I tried to the best of my ability to see what other jobs we could offer and what other financial aid may be available. I even gave her food money for taking care of my cat when I was away. Fight for them when you can.
We need to look out for our students. Although it’s challenging to deal with students who are combative or student leaders who may be slacking on their responsibilities, we need to keep in mind that they are all going through struggles that may be comparable to our own. Some may be dealing with issues at home. Some may not have homes to go back to. Some may be struggling with identifying their sexual orientation or keeping up with academics or working 3 different jobs just to become the engineer they have always wanted to be. Take a step back to reflect on what your students may be going through. And overall, never forget where you came from and what you needed to do to get where you are today. Being vulnerable and empathetic will make you a stronger guide and model for your students at the end of the day.