First-Gen Grad Students Share Their Stories

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In this edition of Peaks and Valleys, we provide a forum for first-generation graduate students to share their experiences.  First-generation graduate students are the first in their family to attend graduate school, and often face a range of unique challenges adjusting to it.  We spent about an hour with a panel of three current first-gen graduate students at the U, plus three working professionals who are, or have been, first-gen graduate students themselves.*  We would like to thank the Graduate School Diversity Office for helping us organize this conversation, and our panelists for their time and the emotional labor of sharing their experiences.  This post is longer than usual, but worth it for the rich perspective our panelists provide.  Highlights are bolded to enable quick skimming.   The last section has many resources graduate students may fund helpful.

Our Panelists:

Michael, working professional, former first-gen grad student

Anne, working professional, former first-gen grad student

Ashley, working professional, former first gen grad student

Katy, first-gen grad student

Jennifer, first gen grad student

Rachel, first-gen grad student


Peaks and Valleys:  What was the biggest adjustment you had to make when you started graduate school? 

Rachel:  Few other students in my program are also parents, and the program does not seem to be designed with me in mind.

Michael:  It required learning a new way of reading and writing.  It was very stressful, and I didn’t feel prepared.  It seemed like everyone else had professional work experience.  I definitely developed Imposter Syndrome.

Katy:  The class difference was the hardest thing to adjust to. I grew up in poverty and am a first gen high school student, in addition to college and graduate student. My experiences growing up in a refugee community made it difficult to adjust to the nuances of graduate school. I could see how my peers’ and faculty’s higher socioeconomic status (SES) impacted how they communicated, related, understood, and conceptualized material. I also saw how their SES impacted how they approached opportunities, resources, financial topics, and deadlines. Among my more privileged peers, there was a sense of safety and self-regulation they were able to demonstrate that allowed them to come across as more confident, receptive, open, and intelligent. In turn, these behaviors were awarded through more offerings of opportunities and resources. In contrast, I saw myself and others who share BIPOC and first-gen identities fear repercussions, alienation, and rejection.

What has been particularly difficult, and continues to be, is having to translate my lived experiences into the language of academia during conversations around identity, culture, working across difference, and systemic oppression. It’s as though I am expected to be a white, higher-SES person with a covering of brown skin.

Jennifer:  Imposter Syndrome, one it’s a deception.  Regardless of ethnicity, gender, a lot for first-year grad students experience it.  Moving to Utah from California was like going to a different country.  Grad school is like an ongoing hazing process, being reminded structurally that you don’t belong.  It’s also a process of transformation guided by brokenness.  I’m now realizing brokenness, imposter syndrome, workload, family dynamic, they were all labor pains.  There’s no definite answer. I could sing it for you.  I could paint it for you.

Michael:  I’m also from Cali, and coming here was a big change.  In South Central, you just see a lot of different faces, different cultures, different communities.  It’s rough, but we’re still united.  It’s a completely different culture here. That’s where the belonging question starts.  I speak and see things a little bit differently.  Do I want to be here?  Can I do it?  Those doubts start coming into mind. 

Ashley, to Rachel:   Utah seems family oriented.  You’d think we’d be more welcoming to student parents.

Rachel: With children, I have a limited amount of time for work, so pressure to also go to all the social events makes it pretty difficult.  I have been driven to tears from the guilt trips.  I’m having to stand up for myself so much more.  It’s growth, but still.  My previous university was much more understanding.

Anne:  It’s funny how we all experience the same things no matter where we’re from.  Meeting these folks make me feel better, like I’m not the only one who’s struggling.  I did my undergrad at a small school in Utah and had a community.  It’s not the same here.  A lot of folks have families and jobs.  They have individual struggles on top of school, and I didn’t expect that ahead of time.  But I think grad school is supposed to train you to be independent and see how you can collaborate with the people around you.  My program tries to put us in teams and social groups so people without families feel supported, but it’s still hard.  Everyone is so busy. 

Ashley:  I was super intimidated by how eloquently everyone spoke.  I felt like everyone was so smart and they were professionals.  I struggled with the readings.  I also hated group work.  It’s a good thing, but a lot people weren’t pulling their weight.

Anne:  Advocating for yourself is important.  I do have a good friend group, but you have to stand up for yourself.  We’re all here for a reason.  We don’t have time to waste.  I’m very grateful for all the professors.  They try to understand and work with us, and give us a lot of leeway.  That’s one cool thing that keeps me going.

Anne, to Rachel:  How would you like people to approach you when they think you need help?

Rachel:  The initial “how are you feeling” is great.  When I say I’m ok, I feel supported enough, being believed would be great.  I’m not lying.  Why would I do that?  I don’t want all these required social activities.  I just want to be a nerd!  I told my advisor and they made it work, so I have less social requirements now.  But I also run a student committee and do grant administration, neither of which are for credit.  There’s a wide range of first-gen experiences.  I’ve had a job since I was 12.  When they were like “you need to have all this free time,” that went against everything that got me here.


Peaks and Valleys:  How do you find mentorship?

Jennifer:  The professor who taught my methods class became a mentor in a way I didn’t expect.  This was deep schooling, and I had to change my paradigm.  In this journey of transformation, I am not necessarily assuming what my community will look like.  I assumed it would be people who were ethnically the same, or from Cali, but through this professor I’ve learned it’s someone whose values align with you, regardless of who they are.  I used to have this arrogance about me like, hello, I’m in your life, you’re blessed.  But since I’ve been in Utah, this professor, along with my religious community, have taught me so much more.  Mainly they’ve taught me to embrace my brokenness.  This time last year, at office hours, this professor did something so touching that it took me a whole year to unpack.  It’s obvious that he’s brilliant.  Even the way that he talks, it’s like he’s from another planet.  Ivy League guy.  Despite all the intimidation, he met me where I was.

Rachel:  I definitely agree.  It’s about being seen by somebody, not just ticking boxes.  It’s seeing you well enough to respond to your little quirks.

Michael:  Being from the hood, it’s a really different game.  You know who’s BS-ing you, who’s not, and you know how to play the game.  In the college setting, in grad school, you can’t find people that relate with you, and what you’ve gone through.  I don’t care about the suit and tie.  That doesn’t matter to me.  Just be real with me.  Talk to me.  Try to get to know me and understand me.  It was hard until I met one professor in Cali.  He did his dissertation on boys in the hood in Compton.  I read it and said “no wonder I like you!  Don’t BS him, he knows when you’re BS-ing!  So with you, I’ll be real, because I can’t BS you.”  And we were just cool like that. I couldn’t find anybody to relate to until I met him.  He was so cool, so helpful.  So inspiring.  Like yes, that’s how I want to be.  He would just walk around, go into every department, talk to everybody.  He could be nice, he could play the roles, but you still have to be real.

Ashley:  I’ve been fortunate to have a few mentors that really shaped my path.  They sent me all their recommendation letters for my grant and grad school applications.  It’s really impactful to have someone see you in a professional setting.  That said, it was difficult to connect with mentors. I didn’t know how to navigate.

Katy:  I completed the UROP Mentorship course two summers ago. As a result, I conceptualize mentorship as someone who invests in another, who learns about their professional goals, and helps them achieve those goals however they can. Examples could be helping them access resources, learning and naming strengths and weaknesses, taking care to check in and provide suggestions for meeting goals, and more.  For me, it has been difficult to find a consistent mentor who is willing to take the time and get to know me, see me, understand the difficulties I hold, validate them, and help to guide me in how to survive an oppressive system while working towards my goals. Instead, I have found mentorship in short-term professional relationships, authors and researchers that I admire, and in friends.

I recently came across a mentorship map that I wish I had earlier in my graduate career.  It’s from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.  Essentially, it’s a map that suggests different mentors can offer different kinds of supports. For example, some mentors offer emotional support, while others may offer things like identifying resources, financial opportunities, publications, etc. This is a tool that I would recommend to other first-gen students.


Peaks and Valleys:  How have you found community and a support system?

Anne:  I’m an only child, and schools don’t necessarily know how to treat an only child.  Only children were forced to figure out our own source of security, to find our own resources.  I don’t need you here 24/7, I just need you here when I need help.  I’m not purposely making any more friends at this point.  People are so busy, but I know who my resources are.  I’m also from a culture where you are taught that you are alone, so you have to be strong and independent.  If I have a question, I know who to go to.  I know they are there for me, even if they’re not my closest friends.

Rachel:  I am also an only child. I have the support, I know who to go to if I need something, but that’s it.

Katy:  Finding a sense of belonging is difficult, especially when you are one of many who are often tokenized or demonized due to existing in a body of difference. While I have leaned into peer groups, our differences in class and upbringing make it difficult to relate at times. Given my upbringing, I have also learned that I need to figure things out on my own. So already, it may be difficult to ask for and receive help. But with the combination of navigating an oppressive system and regular reminders of not belonging, I think it makes it that much more difficult. Throughout my graduate studies, I often feel as though I am auditing classes; a guest attending a training session designed for white, higher SES people.


Peaks and Valleys:  What are some resources you recommend to first-gen grad students? 

Rachel:  Having someone there who can show you all the different funding options.

Ashley:   A lot of first-gen students don’t know how complicated it is.  It would have been nice to know about TRIO programs that empower underrepresented students, the McNair Graduate Scholars Network and the Ronald E. McNair Graduate Fellowship, things like that.  I went to an affluent high school where everyone knew how to access these things. I was supposed to already know these things.

Rachel:   Not only funding, but getting introduced to communities where you have things in common with people.

Jennifer:   The Graduate School Diversity Office.

Ashley:  A lot of people don’t know all these resources for grad students exist – the Career & Professional Development Center, for example.  Everyone think’s geared toward undergrads.  The LGBT Center has stuff geared toward grad students, as well, but a lot of folks don’t know that.

Anne:  I missed my grad program’s orientation!  The best way to find resources is by talking to people.  They can at least give me direction to the right person.  It can be hard to make it work because people can’t know about every resource, and paper resources you get at orientation are not always useful.  By the time you need them, often you’ve lost them.  I remember face-to-face interactions better.

Ashley:  It’s important that grad departments know what resources to give their students.  Often they don’t.

Anne: The Financial Wellness Center will be beneficial for lots of grad students because they have families, they’re trying to save for new baby, new house, or a new car.  They showed me some useful tax and investment things, and information on 401K and Flexible Health Savings Accounts (FHSA).

Katy:  Grad students can also access the Feed U Pantry, and a number of different counseling centers. There are counselors at the University Counseling Center, Women’s Resource Center, Behavioral Health Innovation and Dissemination Center, and the Utah Community Mental Health Clinic.

Ashley:  The Center for Equity and Student Belonging has two embedded EDI therapists, Nicole Puertas Sanchez, and Fabi Madrigal, they’re both great.  The University Counseling Center also offers All the Feels:  A BIPOC Support Group, and other support groups that might be useful to first-gen grad students, like Building a Community of Women in STEM, and Men of Color Self-Compassion Support Group.   Graduate students can also access the Center for Child Care and Family Resources, which has locations in the Union and on the Health Sciences campus.  They offer grants to help students pay for childcare while in school.  You can also drop your kids off for date night one Saturday per month, and they provide free diapers to students as well (the link is on their main page).  You do not have to sign up for free diapers – you can just walk in – but it’s better if you do sign up at the Health Sciences location because it is not staffed full-time.

Anne:  Is there a general place for help where all the different resources are accessible?

Peaks and Valleys: The Basic Needs Collective is a great hub for resources like healthcare, emergency housing, emergency funds, transportation, legal resources, and clothing.  The Dean of Students can also help students with issues like policy exceptions. The Center for Student Wellness also offers victim-survivor advocacy, HIV/STI testing, and one-to-one wellness coaching.


*Parts of our conversation have been rearranged, rephrased, or removed to produce a relatively short and readable article.  Some responses were shared live in conversation, while others were shared in writing afterward.  All panelists’ names, graduate programs, and jobs have been changed to protect their anonymity and allow them to speak freely.