Among the first: Being a first-generation student

Being the first isn’t easy; it can be scary. You are the guinea pig. You teach people what not to do through your mistakes. However, it is quite an honor. Much like when you are 5 years old and heading down the big slide at the playground for the first time. At the top of the slide, your palms sweat and your heart races, but as you glide to the bottom you find the reward, the thrill of making it safely to the end. Now, I am not talking about a slide, I am taking about being among the first generation in your family to go to college.

First-gen is a rather broad term. If your parents or the individual(s) who raised you didn’t graduate from a four-year college, you are a first-gen student as defined by the University of Iowa. This implies that even if you have older siblings who graduated from a four-year college, you are part of the first-generation of your family. Even if your parents received their associate’s degree or vocational training, you are a first-generation student.

The latter is the case for me. My dad and mom went to the Southwestern Community College in the 80s to attend a 9-month vocational training for auto mechanics and secretarial procedures, respectively. 

My older sister was the first in my family to attend and graduate from a four-year college. She graduated from Simpson College in 2013 with a degree in elementary education. Shortly after that, my brother began his journey at Iowa State University, where he graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology. Now here I am at the University of Iowa with the other 1,000 or so first-generation students in the class of 2021—23% of the class of 2021 are first-generation students

Infographic via Iowa Now.

It is exciting to come to college and mingle with students from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of them baffle me. When I hear that people my age have parents or even grandparents that attended four-year colleges, I am blown away. I try to picture the generations of people before me, leaving the same small town that they had been in for their entire lives. People could and did leave my small town to attend college—it just didn’t happen that often. 

Today, heading to a four-year college is pretty standard in my neck of the woods, Southwestern Iowa. But that hasn’t lowered the high expectations and stakes I have set for myself. 

Being one out of the three people in my immediate family to attend a four-year college makes me want to make my family proud. No matter what path I choose, I am sure I will make my family proud. However, the potential for failure scares me, when I know I have an opportunity my parents didn’t have.

From my parents to my grandparents and beyond, they have worked harder than I will ever understand. I know I am in a privileged position where I can leave home and attend college at a Big 10 University. Yet, that can be a lot for me to process and take ownership of.

Each day I try not to take my education for granted. I feel guilty in the days I want to skip class or when I don’t put forth my best effort. 

In my experience of being a first-gen student, I have found it easy to remember how each day and each opportunity I have is such a privilege since it is all so new to my family. It can be tiring to keep trying to remain grounded. Finding the energy to be appreciative and put forth an effort I think my family would be proud of feels nearly impossible, especially when midterms and finals hit.

I am lucky to have siblings who have paved the way for me. Anytime I don’t know what is going on here in class or college in general—which is a lot for me—I have someone to call. 

My family has been more than supportive, yet sometimes I get questions regarding my path. Dance and Journalism are not the easiest areas of study for people to understand, especially to people who don’t see the value of college and on top of that studying the arts in higher education. With many of these people, they were able to find success without the college experience, which spurs these doubtful comments.

“In my experience of being a first-gen student, I have found it easy to remember how each day and each opportunity I have is such a privilege”

-Danica clayton

It feels to me that many people, especially those with the doubtful comments, look to find careers for the possibility of obtaining wealth. That is not what I am about; someday, I want to create and share. Whether that be as a documentarian or dance teacher, I don’t want to find myself in a job or career path just for the money. I will be successful when I am happy, not when my pocket is full. Yet, it is hard for some people to understand that I am spending money, not in hopes to make much more money, but to be happy. These are tough waters for me to navigate, because that is not an ideology I saw much growing up in rural Iowa. 

Each student, first-gen or not, has a unique experience and reasoning for choosing college. For me, college is giving me the chance to experience the places outside of rural Iowa and gather the knowledge I need to find a career I can fall in love with.

While I am sure that my great-grandparents wouldn’t have been able to predict that one of their own would be pursuing a degree in Journalism and Dance, I am sure they could find a way to respect and understand my dedication to pursuing my dreams.

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