Being a First-Generation College Student Made Me a Feminist
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My first day on campus was terrifying. Our family couldn't afford to make the trip to visit campus prior to my arrival as a first-year student, so the entire environment was new to me.
Adding to this stress was the fact that I was the first in my family to attend a university — so my parents were just as lost in the process as I was. My experience as a first-generation college student shaped how I saw both my campus community and the world.
I was immediately aware of the economic differences between myself and other students. Most of them had cell phones, a car, and laptops to complete school work. I had a prepaid phone, no car, and used the library's computers to finish my assignments until financial aid helped me purchase my own laptop.
I didn't realize it until later, but during my first year, I was unwittingly participating in feminism each time I discussed my experiences of poverty and difference and connected them to others' experiences of sexism, homophobia, and racism. Here's how being a first-generation college student made me a feminist.
I Thought Studying Gender Was a Bad Investment
I chose my campus precisely because of its reputation as a first-gen-friendly college campus. They offered me a generous academic scholarship. I also received Pell Grants, KEES money for academic achievement in high school, and other need-based grants. Maxing out the federal, state, and university aid given to me, I was able to attend undergrad pretty much loan-free.
I remember choosing psychology as my major on my enrollment packet, but women and gender studies also caught my eye. I had experiences with feminism at home, being raised in a house with only women. I thought it was important to fight for equity wherever possible, but I was hesitant to select the major because I didn't know how I would be able to make a living studying something so "personal."
Making a living was the single most important thing to me when I was applying to college. Studying something in the humanities or arts didn't seem like a privilege afforded to me because of my own perceived risk of lack of return on investment.
My Background Led Me to Join Feminist Communities
It didn't take me long, however, to naturally gravitate toward feminist classes and social groups. One group, Feminists for Change, gathered together for both social and activist purposes.
My experiences with poverty and other adversities growing up allowed me to draw connections between myself and others' experiences — I didn't know it at the time, but I was feminist consciousness-raising.
Feminist consciousness-raising is a decades-old (many could argue centuries-old) tradition of people, mostly women, gathering together to discuss experiences of injustice that seemed taboo or private. These discussions transformed the personal to the political in a way that helped entire communities of marginalized folks understand that many of their struggles weren't personal failures. Rather, they were connected to larger systems of power and inequality.
I Decided to Risk Studying What I Thrived At…
Emboldened by my newfound sense of community, I began taking academic "risks." Rather than focusing entirely on STEM — which, incidentally, I was not good at — I began to take more literature and sociology courses.
Not only did I find myself personally thriving by exploring things that mattered to me, I also saw my grades improve significantly. I made the dean's list for the first time and remained on the dean's list until I graduated in 2008. As our student commencement speaker, I was able to share my story as a first-generation college student in front of thousands.
Though I began my undergraduate career studying psychology, I ended up graduating as a creative writing major with a minor in women and gender studies (WGS).
If you had told me when I was in high school that this is what my degree would be in, I would have likely panicked. I had no idea how I could support myself with a degree in writing. As it turns out, the skills you learn during your undergraduate career and the personal growth you experience are actually more important than what your major is.
…And I Finally Learned to Claim My Education
My perspective as a first-gen college student began as one of overwhelming gratitude for what I perceived as a gift: I was given a scholarship; I received Pell Grants and KEES money; I was being taught by these incredible professors.
My experiences in WGS classes and communities, however, radically shifted my perspective. Adrienne Rich, a feminist academic and poet, urges women to rethink their experience of their education.
She writes, "You cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves as being here to claim one … The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death."
I read "Claiming an Education" for the first time in my sophomore year of undergrad. And then I read it again and again, over and over, like it was giving me permission to take risks, study what wasn't perceived as profitable, and understand that I'd earned my right to be there.
I didn't have to behave like the university was some benevolent authority and could, instead, curate my own passions and, ultimately, career. I was allowed to be simultaneously grateful for the opportunity to go to college while also critical of the inequalities that I saw around me.
Most importantly, what I began to see was that critical thinking skills are transferable: Being able to identify a problem and all its nuances and come up with a practical solution is something you can use anywhere.
High-Risk, Priceless Reward
As the world evolves and our globe becomes more interconnected than ever, your personal experiences of growth and professional development in undergrad influence not only how employers perceive your resume but also what you want to do professionally.
I'm well aware that educational and professional risks are riskier for folks with less of a financial or social safety net, but there are ways of pursuing what matters to you personally while also strategically building transferable skills.
So, while I am writing my dissertation and looking toward a career in non-fiction writing and feminist research, I realize that my Ph.D. will say "Gender Studies." It does come with a connotation of a "soft field," but in both my professional and personal experience, the interdisciplinarity of gender studies produces nimble critical thinkers who are equipped to face the challenges of an ever-evolving global professional scene head-on.
I wish I could tell the terrified first-generation student version of myself that the return on her investment would be immeasurable.
Meet the Author
Sandra Carpenter is a doctoral candidate in Gender Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She has an MA in Women's and Gender Studies from the University of South Florida and a BA in Creative Writing from Eastern Kentucky University. Sandra's research and writing focus on Feminist Geography, Appalachian Studies, and Critical Race and Postcolonial Studies.