The right to our identity: Creating community among first-generation students

Kasey Moulton, Podcast Reporter

If I’m being honest, I still don’t exactly know what college is supposed to look like – is it my childhood bedroom? Awkward half-Zoom, half-real classrooms? I’m pretty sure that this is a sentiment that many of my peers would share, but being a first-generation student adds a whole other layer to these conversations. Getting started without any real frame of reference is isolating and having a robust community to fall back on would be reassuring. Although there are certainly some resources, and some spaces available for the establishment of first-generation, working-class communities, the unconventional start to this school year has made them all the more inaccessible. 

I remember hearing so much about the Whitman bubble when I decided this would be my home, but I have yet to really see it in action. This bubble was explained to me as a distinction between the politics of Whitman College and Walla Walla, with students keeping to themselves within a relatively rigid space. Instead, what I have seen is an on-campus bubble: a sharply divided inner and outer circle, the center dominated by students with means and money, the edges loosely populated by FGWC students, their identities hidden. The “Whitman Bubble” that keeps the campus separate from the larger Walla Walla community spills over to how communities on campus distinguish themselves.  

There’s a moment of silence after I describe myself to my peers as first-generation – differences in class aren’t assumed, and there’s a general guess that your classmates come from a background like your own.  

Placing these students on the bubble’s periphery isn’t that abstract of an idea, especially since a 2017 study found that 66% of Whitman students come from families in the top 20 percent. That’s a low number compared to other “elite colleges” – the language used by the aforementioned study – but the highest of all similarly-typed Northwest colleges.  

Assumptions about class and familial backgrounds aren’t surprising because students in the bottom 80% are generally the minority. It’s easy, yet isolating, to not say otherwise when comparing family backgrounds. Your odds of meeting someone from Oregon are the same as meeting a first-generation student – why does one status elicit a more significant response? Treating one as an anomaly and the other as something to be expected implies that some students, particularly those who are first-generation, are not supposed to get to this point. That assumption means their presence in the broader campus community can be questioned.  

There is potential for FGWC community organization, and although some are in place already, this year’s uncertain start has made getting in contact with students all the more difficult. It’s fair to characterize FGWC communities on campus as insulated, and I don’t blame them for that – it’s something that I catch myself doing – but outreach seems like a key way to get students involved. 

Opportunities for mentorship, like a project sponsored by the Intercultural Center, are great spaces to catch your footing and provide at least a semblance of community, but meeting those people online, like I did this year, doesn’t provide that much of a connection to other students in your own class. It’s easy to blame that on the conditions – a remote student body being the most obvious explanation – but as other communities have begun to come together as campus gets slightly closer to mythical normal, FGWC groups haven’t followed suit. 

I think I’ll remember the range of emotions I felt after receiving my Whitman acceptance forever – I was at once wildly excited for the possibility, and deeply terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make it work. Making it work remains a semester-by-semester discussion, but still something that’s become firmly within my reach. 

I’m tired of first-generation being something that’s hushed, almost pushed to the backburner. I know that all my FGWC peers embrace that same categorization in different ways, but please, come out of the shadows in that outer circle for just a minute. If not for yourself, then do it for the students who come to campus after you, floundering in a way that might seem familiar. If none of us know what college is supposed to look like, we might as well tackle it together.