As the late Biggie Smalls said "if you don't know, now you know!“

I have thought about that lyric in so many different contexts. My great grandmother, grandmother and parents never made it past the 9th grade. There are so many things that I have always felt I didn't know growing up that other kids always seemed to understand.   Not knowing has hurt me in so many contexts and I think often about what our first gen and low SES students don’t know and how it holds them back. 

This talk for me is personal and political. 

It's personal because America doesn't believe that people who look like me grew up in poverty. That I was a welfare kid. That our heat got shut off every winter. That I knew the exact shade of yellow that the eviction notices were because they lined my block every year. Some first gen kids like me can be invisible. We have the privilege of passing.

When I was a freshman in college, I didn't use my meal card for the first three weeks of classes. I didn't understand how it worked. I thought it was a credit card. Although I had never had a credit card I had heard enough talk in hushed tones from the people on my block to know it was bad news.

A month later I received my financial aid check. It was an enormous sum $932.86 cents and I could barely touch it the number seemed so big.

I was told to go to the bank across the street to cash it so I did. It was my first time in a bank. The teller looked at me and impatiently said "I need you to endorse it before I can give you your money." I stared at her blankly.

Endorse? Like show my support for it?  Like present it?  What did she mean??

She rolled her eyes.  "You have to sign it". I looked at her again. "Ummm, where?" I didn't see a line for my name anywhere on the front of that check. Needless to say I probably wasn't her favorite customer that day.

But I just didn't know.

I drove myself to college, about 3 ½ hours away from home with a backpack and a duffle bag and not much else.   My RA came by as I was unpacking looked around my empty room and said “Ummm, I’m going to Target to pick up a few things.  I can’t believe I forgot to pack my towels!  Do you want to come with me?”

I didn’t know we had to bring towels…I had been to a motel once when our heat got shut off and they had towels so I assumed that college would have towels. 

But what did I know?  The only things I knew about college I learned from the TV show “A Different World.”  And my RA was not Sinbad so perhaps I really didn’t know what college was about.

These are two of about 2 dozen stories that I have about navigating college as a first gen kid

17 years after the great check-cashing incident I now have the extreme privilege to work at an urban institution where I have the greatest job in the world--serving as the Campus Dean to bright, talented, low-income, mostly first-gen students.

I see their anxiety when they encounter situations that most college students have been taught to manage that they have no exposure to. I see how frustrating and isolating it can be to not know the answers and maybe to not even know the question to ask to get to the answer.

They don’t always want to be discovered…but they need you to find them anyway. So what can we do? A few strategies to helping first gen kids succeed.

1) Don't stereotype them as millennials.  While their birth year might automatically deem them as a part of that generation, low income and first gen students largely don't fit the mold. Those generational stereotypes are based on middle class notions. 

A senior was graduating and I said, “Let me see your ID, I want to see how much you have changed.”  He looked hesitant.  I was confused—did he take an unflattering picture?   Why didn’t he want me to see his face?

He finally took the ID out of his wallet and sheepishly handed it to me.  His face was bloody and bruised.  He had been beaten up the night before classes by some guys in his neighborhood started because they said “who do you think you are, going away to college?

2) Don’t assume that everyone in their home community went to college or is excited for them to be enrolled at a university.

3)Make career preparation as much of a focus as you do about the identity and leadership development. We are denying students their transcripts because of $600 holds.  What policies are preventing the students who need to secure employment the most?

4) Know that not having a safety net impacts them. They get their phone shut off a lot. They are often making decisions about whether to buy a subway pass to get to class or to eat lunch.  We assume the poorest students aren’t in 4 year institutions or at private school.  It’s time to re-frame our thinking on this.  They are in all of our institutions.

5) We marginalize these students when we assume that some things are “common knowledge.”   They don’t always know the rules of the game and while it’s true that some students have SAT pep courses, tutors, and may even hire a tutor to help them write their college entrance exam, we also have students who are winging it, one step at a time with little to no guidance.  

6) Don't lower the bar...don't fall into the trap of paternalism. Create opportunities so they can.  These students are used to people thinking they “can’t.” Show them they can. We don’t expect a lot out of students who are first gen and/or low SES.  We just want them to “make it.”  When really the goal should be to get them to thriving, not just surviving.

The most insidious disease that is infiltrating higher education? 

A lack of urgency. 

It is preventing students from graduating, finding employment and is preventing us from delivering the ROI they deserve.

We don’t have years to develop resources that enhance student success.  We need to think about improvement on the daily, weekly and monthly basis.

Moving at a snails pace hurts low SES students the most.

We are valuing process, politics and silos over moving students towards graduation.   We talk about students creating a legacy…how about your legacy as a practitioner?  It is time for us to own the numbers.  More and more students are slipping through the cracks…they may not have safety nets at home but we can give them the tools to build their own wings… 

These students success depends on our ability to understand their unique situations and meet them where they are at...not where other students are at.

And if you don’t know, now you know, so let’s flip the script and do better for these students—today.

AuthorAnn Marie