As I prepare to enter last semester of undergrad, I still struggle to articulate my experience as a first-generation college student.
Overwhelmed by the memories of the past 3 and a half years as I type this, I am still unable to fully understand most of it. I cannot fathom the idea of standing in front of a filled classroom and speaking on the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and desperation I endured as a first-year student. To explain this commonly shared experience of first-gen students and then to follow it up the reassurance that it all ends up alright still seems like a far-fetched idea.
Somehow, Dr. Stacey Dearing of the English department did just that last Wednesday night.
The annual “First Generation in College at Siena” discussion series invites a faculty member to reflect on what it was like to be a first generation college student. As noted by Dr. Todd Synder, one of the professors who facilitates the event, “The series was established so that students at Siena who are the first in their family to go to college can get a sense that there are a lot of faculty members that come from similar backgrounds.” Dr. Stacey Dearing was selected this year to tell her story of going from being the first person in her family to attend college to earning her PhD in 2018.
Dr. Dearing discussed what life was like growing up in a working-class family in a small city in Michigan. She shared that her mother became chronically ill when she was young and that her father was constantly working trade jobs to support their family. She noted that at a young age, she learned how to do various household chores to take care of herself and family members.
When it came time for Dr. Dearing to attend college, she could not afford her first choice school. Instead, she chose a small-liberal arts college that provided her enough scholarships to attend. Her first year at college was… less than ideal. “It was not fine. It was terrible” as Dr. Dearing described it. During this time, she struggled with homesickness, isolation, and reaching out for help. While her parents were supportive, she felt that because they had not gone to college, there was no way they could understand what she was going through. She still regrets expressing that sentiment to her mother to this day.
“The weird thing about all of this is that while I was crying all the time and super miserable, classes were going fine.” Dr. Dearing explained that, while she was deeply struggling to adjust to college life, she found salvation in her classes. Through her love of English and history courses, she eventually found professors that acted as her mentors. Also through her academic passions, Dr. Dearing was able to find supportive peers who shared similar interests. With the right people by her side, Dr. Dearing was able to make it through not only undergraduate studies, but also a Master’s degree and a PhD program.
Dr. Dearing left the audience with ways to manage the emotional difficulties of being a first-gen student. These included accepting offers of friendship, talking with professors you trust about the hardships, and, asking someone for help. Looking back, I wish my 18-year-old self had utilized any of these tips in coping with the transition into college.
More importantly, I wish a faculty member had told me, as Dr. Dearing told the audience Wednesday night, that “It gets better. It all ends up ok.”