I’m just saying how I feel, man.
I ain’t one of the Cosbys; I ain’t go to Hillman.
~Kanye West, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
Lately I have been become interested in a phenomenon that I refer to as first-generation awareness, that is, the realization and subsequent acceptance that one is a first-generation college student. The concept may seem obvious, but after reflecting upon my own school experiences and in speaking with other first-gens, I stand firm that this identity needs to be explored more carefully. Specifically, I argue that one must learn that she is a first-generation college student and then with that knowledge in hand, begin to seek resources and support.
For as long as I can remember, I knew that I was going to be the first person in my family to go to college. Why? Because my aunts and uncles told me so at every opportunity. I was known as the “smart one” and all questions regarding school and the government were first brought to me.
“Tee, you’re smart. What does this word mean?”
“The school called today. What that teacher want?”
“Something came in the mail from the city. Can you open it up, baby?”
I knew that I was the first to go to college in my family, but I didn’t realize that being first-generation was a thing. I just knew that I was different somehow, but more importantly, I had a responsibility to do well in school not just for myself but for the whole family, my block and even the race. As the designated family representative, I was aware that I had opportunities that my mother, grandmother and cousins did not. My success (or failure) was everyone’s success and cause for widespread celebration.
My grandmother and youngest uncle–still in high school at the time–were excited when they found out that my second grade class was taking a field trip to City Hall and that we would have an opportunity to meet with the mayor. Our homework was to come up with a question that we would ask him.
“Nah, Tee. All of those other kids are going to ask stupid questions,” Unc rubbed his hands together after I explained the assignment. “You gotta come up with something good.”
I was puzzled. “Like what?”
He and my grandma looked at each other knowingly. “We’ll help you.”
The big day came. We toured the grounds, fidgeted while the teachers attempted to explain the wonders of a democracy, and finally were shuffled into a small room that reminded me of a library. The mayor was patient and gracious, but I suspected he wasn’t used to being around a bunch of seven year olds. Sure enough, Unc was right: the questions were fairly lightweight.
“How many pets do you have?”
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Do you like cake or pie?”
And then it was my turn. I stood up and held my wide-ruled notebook paper steady as I cleared my voice and read.
“When are you going to pass a law in favor of rent control so that poor people can pay their rent?”
The room fell completely silent at first. Within seconds, one teacher rushed toward me and another headed toward Mayor Mann, shielding him from my audacity.
A classmate whispered to another. “What did she say?”
“I don’t know.”
It didn’t matter that I had no idea what rent control was either, but I stood there politely while the mayor (now sweaty and turning pinker by the minute) stammered his way through a response. And it didn’t make any difference that since 1950, the Code of Virginia has prohibited rent control and no mayor has the authority to overturn the law. What mattered most was that I asked the question. Unc and Grandma recognized that the average poor person would never get an opportunity to meet with a government official, so it was my responsibility to speak on behalf of others who could not be there.
I recently called my grandmother and asked her about this incident. I wanted to know what she remembered, and why did she come up with a wringer about rent control of all things? Her response was something like this:
“You know, you was always asking questions. [Your grandfather] always said, ‘She’s the Smart One in the family.’ You always had your nose stuck in a book. And [your father’s family] also encouraged you. All of those questions. You kept asking us why people lived where they lived. So I figured, you could just ask the man himself.”
Now, Grandma is getting up there in age and her memory is not what it used to be, so I am not certain how much of this recollection is true. But clearly she was on to a powerful pedagogical strategy, that is, when possible, students should take charge of their own education. Rather than having me follow the crowd (“What’s your favorite ice cream?”), she pushed me to speak directly to an authority figure about something that was critically relevant.
This is an important lesson that I aim to instill within my own children, as well as my students. For instance, when my son was frustrated with a school project that required him to interview a family member about her “immigration story” and also to provide photos and documentation of said immigration experience (Remember: we are not immigrants), my husband and I suggested that he write a letter to his social studies teacher explaining why the assignment was not appropriate. We wanted him to know that he could speak up and talk back and that there are times when you must speak on behalf of your family and community.
This message is especially meaningful for first-generation college students who often come to the university with questions. These queries should be welcomed, nurtured, and perhaps pruned, when necessary. Sometimes they are audacious. Sometimes the question may be as simple as, “What difference does it make that I am the first person in my family to go to college?”
And the answers are seldom simple.