Being the first in the family to attend college can be a challenging path to travel. Without an experienced family member to guide them through the process, many first-generation students may feel lost or overwhelmed by the campus experience. But SPEA’s faculty and staff understand the obstacles first-gen students face because many were once in the same position.
SPEA assistant professor Adam Eckerd is one of those. He shared details about his own experience as a first-gen student and advice for students blazing the trail for their families.
What challenges did you face as a first-generation student?
“As a first-generation student, I lacked an understanding of the basic costs of attending college, including tuition, fees, room and board, etc. I didn’t know the differences between grants and the different types of loans that were available to me. How to actually apply for scholarships and financial aid was also a mystery. I didn’t apply for any scholarships, though I’m fairly certain I was eligible for some. I felt like there was so much to learn about applying for college and very little information accessible to me. For a long time, I was too proud to admit that I needed help. I did not want others in my class or my teachers to know how much I was struggling. I feared being told by others that I wasn’t right for college. It was the father of a friend, a local pastor, who took it upon himself to begin working with my family on gathering the information and materials needed to apply for college and financial aid.
Once I got to college, I didn’t know how to go about selecting a major. There were so many messages out there during my freshman year regarding how long to wait to select a major, and whether to follow my dreams or pick a major that will lead to a high-paying salary. I am very fortunate that a professor took the time during a transfer student orientation to ask me what I really wanted to do for a career. It was the first time I felt like someone was truly listening to me.
In my first few classes, I never spoke voluntarily and feared being called on by the professor. I did not want others to find out that I didn’t belong there. I observed other students and learned from them how to ask the professor questions after class and how important it was to attend office hours. While I didn’t often speak in class, I always made a point to meet with professors one-on-one during office hours. Doing that also made me eventually feel more equipped to fully participate in the classroom.”
How did overcoming those challenges set you up for success in your current job?
“I overcame many of the challenges associated with being a first-generation student by continuing to show up to class and study sessions even when I was uncomfortable doing so and felt like I didn’t belong. I began to realize that feeling uncomfortable was not necessarily a bad thing; instead, it meant that I was learning and being stretched. I started to pursue the types of experiences that scared me the most, like writing long research papers and speaking in public. Surviving those experiences, and sometimes even excelling at them, gave me the confidence I needed to pursue a double major and, subsequently, my graduate degrees.”
What do you wish you had known when you were first in college and what advice do you have for current first-generation students?
“Please know that there are other first-generation students in your classes who are feeling the same way you do and who struggle with the same types of issues. You are not alone. Your questions about how to “do college” are not stupid. Others have the same questions, and student advisors and professors want you to come to them for answers. Feeling uncomfortable and out of your league is not necessarily a bad thing. Keep showing up, observe your surroundings, and connect one-on-one with your professors. Doing so will open doors to opportunities you have yet to imagine.”