During my senior year of high school, my first-generation friends and I used to joke, “Yeah, I mean so-and-so competitive school definitely only accepted me to fill a quota!” But when I got to Barnard, where most of my peers and friends aren’t first-gen, this joke started to feel like a reality. What if my public school really didn’t prepare me for life at Columbia? What if I really was accepted as a token student to fulfill some quota?
Over the past three years, I spent a lot of time convincing myself that I was not accepted to Barnard just because I’m first-gen. Last summer, I even spoke on a panel at the She’s the First Summit about being first-gen and advised high school juniors and seniors in the audience to never doubt their places in their future schools.
But now, as a senior facing the daunting tasks of networking, résumé editing, and job hunting, all of the doubts about whether I actually am qualified to be here come creeping back. I know that when I apply for jobs, whether I am rejected or accepted, I will inevitably find myself questioning whether or not I actually deserved the position.
My parents worked hard to ensure that I could pursue any opportunity that would keep me on par with my non-first-gen peers. I know that Barnard accepted me because of my credentials and work ethic and not to fulfill a quota. I’m not looking for validation that either of these things is true, and I do not need a pat on the back to reassure me. Barnard has equipped me with new skills and a confidence that will help me in life after college. Still, this doesn’t mean that I am not occasionally discouraged by doubts brought on by impostor syndrome.
I am fortunate to attend a school where students aren’t afraid to discuss the challenges that come along with being a first-generation college student. I commend the work of the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, which has created programs like the CU Meal Share and the FLIP lending library. At Barnard, administrators like Dean of Academic Enrichment and Community Initiatives Michell Tollinchi-Michel listen to our feedback and send daily invitations to events specifically meant to help first-gens on campus.
These programs, however, primarily address life as an undergraduate first-gen. This is obviously not without good reason, but after reading about the establishment of the Columbia First-Generation and Low Income Alumni Network and learning about similar initiatives that exist outside of Columbia, I started to think about how we need to extend the conversation about what it means to be first-gen after college. Although some may assume otherwise, the challenges of being first-gen will not disappear after graduation.
I often hear students talking about how their parents are on their backs about networking and are always trying to set them up with people who can further their careers, or pressure their children to pursue a certain field. The feelings of frustration, confusion, and anger that arise when I hear people talk about these subjects are no different than the ones which consumed a lot of my emotional energy during my first year at Barnard, when I would overhear girls in my hall on the phone with their parents, who were helping them edit their essays or put finishing touches on their class presentations. Through no fault of their own, my high-school-educated parents weren’t able to help me revise my essays, and now, they aren’t able to connect me with people who might be able to help me find a job after graduation.
Many people assume that since we’ve made it to senior year, we’re now on a level playing field with our non-first-gen peers. When I was applying for internships for last summer, I was waiting to hear back from one company and had an offer from another that was about to expire. Instead of being able to pick up the phone to ask my parents for advice on what to do, I had to contact a high school friend’s parent who had gone to college, a teacher from high school, and a mentor from a former internship.
It’s not that my parents wouldn’t have been willing to help me, but that they didn’t have the necessary experience to shed light on my situation. The hoops we first-gens have to jump through to be on a level playing field with our non-first-gen peers sometimes seem endless.
Despite having parents who didn’t go to college, I have the immense privilege of coming from a relatively financially secure, middle-class family. I realize I need to use this opportunity to remind us all to consider how the added stress of being low-income further complicates the job application process.
What’s even scarier than feeling like I was accepted to Barnard because of a quota is the idea that the jobs I will be applying to in April will expect me to have overcome all of the issues that come with being first-gen and that they should no longer impact my ability to interview, build a résumé, or negotiate a salary. This is where Columbia can work to expand its efforts to help first-gen students, whether this be a roundtable discussion with first-gen seniors or a workshop with first-gen alumni in which current students can gain insight into what the first-gen life is like after Columbia. Ultimately, I have hope that Columbia can continue to build more programs that will help first-gen seniors and graduates combat the challenges that accompany this identity throughout our lives.
The author is a Barnard senior majoring in urban studies with a concentration in political science, vice president of the Barnard/Columbia Chapter of She’s the First, and believes we should ban the question, “But what do you want to do with that after graduation?”
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