Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 3
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Invisible Category: First-Generation Students at Whitman Face Unique Challenges

Graphic by Sean McNulty

“Class is invisible. You can dress and act a different way and no one would ever really know what you might be struggling with. First-generation students really are in an invisible category.”

As the adviser for Whitman’s First Generation and Working Class Club, Professor of History Julie Charlip has seen countless students come to Whitman from backgrounds like her own. They are the first in their families to attend college and are often from households significantly less well-off than the majority of their peers.

In the fall 2013 semester, 10 percent of the student body identified as first-generation college students, making it one of the smallest statistical minority categories at Whitman. It’s likely that most students at Whitman know a first-generation student, but unlikely that they understand the first-generation college experience.

Unlike other signifiers of identity, “first generation” comes attached to a diverse spectrum of backgrounds. Many who identify as first generation struggle at college with family finances, varying levels of cultural capital and feelings of isolation. However, not all do, and the phrase “first generation and working class” isn’t necessarily all-encompassing.

“Being first generation [and] working class isn’t something that happens to everyone, but, at the same time, every experience for first-generation students can be unique from each other,” said sophomore first-generation student Brenda Zarazua.

Senior first-generation student Bridget Tescher believes economic difference isn’t acknowledged enough on campus. Often, it’s simply assumed that most students come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

“It gets really tense as soon as you try and bring up economic disparity. Overall, I think a lot of students here are really uncomfortable with their economic status in general,” she said.


Economic class is a factor that often goes ignored at Whitman, but it affects students of all racial backgrounds. Associate Professor of Sociology Gilbert Mireles, who is a former first-generation student, believes economic class has a greater impact on a student’s Whitman experience than any other demographic feature.

“In the college-going experience oftentimes class influences the day-to-day experiences of students to a much greater extent than their racial-ethnic background. That’s not to say that racial-ethnic background isn’t going to be a factor … but I think that [in] everyday lived reality, class is a more significant factor,” he said.

Mireles, who attended Swarthmore College, says he sees connections between first-generation students’ experiences and his own. Mireles traveled from central California to attend Swarthmore and faced a culture shock for which he wasn’t prepared.

“I came from a background that was very different from most of the students that I encountered at Swarthmore … these kids came across as very worldly and cosmopolitan and experienced in all sorts of ways that I was not.”

Because of those cultural differences, interacting with his peers at Swarthmore was difficult for Mireles.

“I wasn’t able to readily engage them in conversation in the dining hall, [and] I hadn’t had the sorts of educational opportunities that they had had. I hadn’t had the vacation experiences that they had had. I didn’t know anything about lacrosse, these sorts of things that are outside the experiential framework of someone growing up in a small farming community,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, and I felt very isolated and unsupported.”

Upon coming to Whitman, Tescher quickly became aware of how her clothing set her apart from other students. She tried to conform to what she calls the “Whitman dress code” of Birkenstocks and North Face jackets because she felt pressure to fit in appearance-wise.

“I think that Whitman’s first-generation [and] working class students learn very quickly how to blend in and how to adopt the lifestyle that Whitman students lead here, even if it requires cutting corners and buying stuff from the REI used gear sale as opposed to the Patagonia store,” she said.

First-generation student Lionel Valdez* says the cultural difference between him and his more economically privileged Whitman peers hasn’t negatively affected him because he found a small community of students of color from similar socioeconomic backgrounds to connect with. However, the gap in economic resources and cultural references among students of lower and higher income backgrounds can be surreal, he says.

“I remember freshman year, [my first-year section] had barely met each other, and we didn’t really know each other. Then during winter break they went on an amazing, crazy trip that was super expensive. Stuff like that was different, and people I grew up with and hung out with never had that kind of experience.”

Assistant Professor of Art Nicole Pietrantoni’s parents attended community college, but she was the first in her family to attend a prestigious four-year university. Her parents encouraged her to attend college in order to live a life that was less financially stressed than theirs.

“In my family, it was kind of like a golden ticket. You get an education, and you can do something really great. It was like, ‘You can do something better than we’ve done. You can go farther, you can do better,'” she said.

Although the college application process isn’t easy for first-generation Whitman students without parents who have experience with higher education, many had mentors who were invested in their college careers. Others were involved in college preparatory programs in high school.

Zarazua went to a charter high school that focuses on preparing students for college. But when she finally arrived at college, things weren’t as she expected. Her parents couldn’t travel to Whitman with her, so her aunt came with her for one day. She moved into the dorms by herself.

“My charter school kept saying, ‘College is going to be perfect and the best time of your life.’ So I was expecting that things would be great, but then it felt like it was a let down, and I was lonely,” she said.

Finances and Family Ties

Tescher worked 20-25 hours per week in high school and throughout Whitman to pay for college, and her single-parent father hasn’t been able to support her Whitman education financially. She doesn’t label herself as poor, but says that she sometimes feels set apart from Whitman students who come from wealthier backgrounds.

“I didn’t ever actually think I was poor … I identified as middle class … I grew up on free and reduced lunch, and it wasn’t until I got here that I realized there was so much more upward [mobility], and there was so much more money that I could have had that I didn’t,” she said.

Finances created an immediate but unspoken division between Tescher and her first-year peers when she wasn’t able to attend a Scramble, and when her section-mates wanted to eat meals outside of the campus dining halls.

“[Seeing everyone come back from their Scramble] was definitely dislocating at first, because as soon as I got here, everyone had friends and had been on this week-long trip,” she said. “I could never go out with my section. They would all go out [to eat] … and I was like, ‘I can’t afford to go out every week.'”

For Mireles, his financial struggle as an undergraduate can be summed up in a painful memory of leaving for college. As his father was driving him to the airport, he handed him $600 in cash. Although Mireles was on a full-ride scholarship at Swarthmore, there were extra expenses, such as books and transportation home, that quickly ate through his extra funds.

“It was the end of summer, and I can’t imagine how hard [my father] worked to earn that money, probably over the course of … more than the summer, and he just kind of gave it to me as I was leaving for my first year. And it was gone in about two months. I mean you have to eat … college isn’t cheap,” he said.

Junior first-generation student Leslie Rodriguez’s first year at Whitman was especially difficult because she was worried about paying for college in addition to transitioning to being away from her family.

Although Rodriguez says she hasn’t struggled as much financially since her first year, she still feels pressure to work at school, often at what she feels to be the expense of her academics.

“In the back of my mind I’m always constantly like, ‘That’s money I’m not making, and it’s money that we need,'” she said. “That’s constantly on my mind when I’m doing homework or when I’m here. I sometimes feel that because I’m here, I’m neglecting [my family], in a sense.”

Since she’s not yet financially independent, junior first-generation college student Heather Lovelace says it can be difficult to separate family financial struggles from her academic and social life at Whitman. Lovelace’s father is considering retiring, which would significantly affect how much money they could contribute to her education.

“I’ve been trying to work on … not taking my parents’ worries and making them my own and realizing that I am my own person, which is really hard because we’re so tied to our family,” said Lovelace.

Adapting to the academic environment at Whitman can be a source of guilt for first-generation students and of tension between students and their parents.

Mireles, who now dedicates his life to the academic world, says that he has struggled with maintaining a connection to his roots.

“It took me a while to figure that out. That in gaining the cultural capital of these elite institutions, I didn’t necessarily have to leave behind the rich and beautiful culture that I knew growing up,” said Mireles. “There was a long period of doubting, [thinking], ‘Well, am I Mexican enough? Am I working class enough?'”

Pietrantoni, who went on to receive an MFA and Fulbright fellowship, says it’s increasingly difficult for her to connect with her family at home. Her first winter break back home as an undergraduate highlighted the fact that not only could she not identify socioeconomically with her classmates, but her family at home as well.

“I felt like an alien. I was studying hearing my family speak, and I felt like an observer. The way they talked was so different, just with slang or mispronunciation of words. When I got to college I realized I was saying some things wrong, and I still do accidentally,” she said. “So I think there was this harsh realization that my education felt like it was distancing myself from them … I don’t think my peers really had to experience that.”

Cultural Capital

Pietrantoni, who attended Vanderbilt University as an undergraduate, says there was an additional element of being working class that made her self conscious about her interactions with other college community members.

“Students [at Vanderbilt] had social graces, such as ways in small talking and being able to really navigate social situations that I really didn’t have yet. I just didn’t have that experience of working with adults and professors that these other students did,” she said.

Mireles says his Swarthmore classmates had a number of social and cultural assets, which he refers to as ‘cultural capital,’ that gave them an advantage in the liberal arts environment.

“I started reading ‘The New Yorker’ even though I didn’t always understand what they were referring to, and I think it was a very conscious process of accessing and learning cultural capital that others already had, given their background, and that I did not possess given my own background,” he said.

Differences in cultural capital can be discouraging for first-generation college students, especially when it comes to academics.

“[Non-first-generation college students’] parents probably read to them, put them in these classes, extracurricular activities … they have already been exposed to opportunities that I haven’t been able to have. I constantly have to work 10 times harder than them, and it’s not even good enough. I’m never going to be at their level,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, a politics major, believes many first-generation college students haven’t gained the cultural capital to be academically confident at Whitman and often struggle in discussion-based classes. In these classes, a large percentage of grades is determined by students’ willingness to speak, which can be difficult when students are required to use cultural references, past experiences and knowledge they may not have.

“I’ve always been intimidated by my peers just because they speak so eloquently and have amazing thoughts. It’s just like, ‘I couldn’t have come up with this’ … That’s something I’ve always been upset about, because they’re way ahead of me,” she said.

Unlike students with parents who went to college, first-generation students are often learning material well beyond their parents’ education level. During his first year at Whitman, senior first-generation college student Cam Young was surprised to notice some of his friends had their parents edit their essays before turning them into professors.

Ultimately, while he doesn’t think his grades have suffered because of it, he does feel he had to work harder academically to keep up with other Whitman students.

“I couldn’t imagine how nice it would have been to have my parents read my papers and to have that kind of resource,” he said. “So I feel a lot of the time I was trying to make up for the knowledge and resources that I hadn’t had before, while simultaneously trying to learn what was currently being taught.”

For Valdez, the transition to college academics was so difficult that he had to change majors. He also felt uncomfortable going to his professors’ office hours because he didn’t want them to feel that he was less intelligent than his classmates.

“In high school, I did really well academically, and I didn’t think it was that hard. But then I came to Whitman, and it felt like a slap in the face. It was like, ‘What am I thinking?’ I couldn’t even understand what I was doing wrong,” he said.

First-generation students who work often struggle to balance long work hours with Whitman academics. Tescher says she feels some Whitman faculty assume that all students can focus exclusively on academics, whereas she has always needed to divide her time and mental resources between school and work. Tescher says she has had professors show frustration that she didn’t attend their office hours because of work, yet didn’t allow appointments outside of office hours.

“I think sometimes they give an unreasonable amount of classwork load because they assume that students don’t work more than five hours a week, if they work at all. It’s been difficult being assigned an unreasonable amount of work, to get it done and then go to class and then go to work to be able to earn money to be able to go to class. It’s this horrible cycle of sacrificing my classwork or sacrificing my work, and then either way, I lose out,” she said.

System of Support

Not all students feel comfortable publicly identifying as first generation, which can make creating a systematic way for faculty to reach out to them difficult. Pietrantoni relates to not feeling comfortable sharing her background with professors and peers.

“The best thing I can do as a faculty member is to support all of my students, even if they’re not first generation and working class, to create an environment where they’ll know that I’m always there to listen to whatever concern they might have,” she said.

Mireles says he draws upon his experience as a first-generation college student in his grading style, and tries to keep in mind that not all his students come from elite academic backgrounds.

“I put a lot of emphasis in classes on [students’] effort and [their] willingness to learn and engage [with] the material. I’m very conscious about this stuff because I felt the same way when I was in college. There would be these kids who did very little work and got a great return because they were well-prepared … and then I and other friends would just work our butts off and get a B on the assignment, and that kid who wrote it two hours before it was due got the A,” he said.

Currently, there are 47 faculty and staff members at Whitman who identify as first generation and have placed their names on a list that is available around campus for students who need mentorship.

Young says that Peterson Endowed Chair of Social Studies Keith Farrington, a former first-generation college student himself, has provided him valuable guidance as an academic adviser.

“He’s really taught and guided me on my writing style and presentation style––his investment in me has been huge,” he said.

In addition, the First Generation and Working Class Club, which was founded in 2002, has worked to make Whitman a welcoming community for first generation college students. The club has grown in recent years and has begun a mentorship program this academic year, pairing incoming first-years with students who agreed to participate as mentors.

“If I had someone early on who could have been able to show me some structure, some study tips, that would have refaced my college education,” said Young, who now mentors a first-year first-generation student himself.

“Everyone deserves a group to be a part of and people to feel comfortable talking to,” said Charlip.

Although Rodriguez says she has worked hard to be engaged in her classes and has sought extra guidance from fellow peers and professors, she doesn’t want being a first-generation student to define her and her Whitman experience.

“I’ve come a long way since my freshman year … But I’m still struggling [with it], and I’ll probably struggle later in life … Yes, I am a first generation student. Yes, I haven’t been exposed to all these opportunities, but that shouldn’t limit my capabilities,” said Rodriguez. “I know I have a lot of potential. That’s why I’m here, but it’s still going to be a struggle and I’m still learning to improve and not be afraid or intimidated by my peers.”

*Name has been changed.

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