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Posted on Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 5:01 a.m.

First-generation college students at the University of Michigan share their stories

By Guest Column

10-2012 First Gen Meeting 010.jpg

First-Generation College Students@Michigan

Dwight Lang | Contributor

by Danielle Boshers, Anna Garcia, Melody Ng, Chris Reynolds, Dwight Lang

During the 2007-08 academic year. a small group of University of Michigan undergraduates began meeting informally to share common experiences of being first in their families to attend college. They learned that approximately 13 percent of 25,000+ Michigan undergraduates were “first-gens.” Soon First-Generation College Students @ Michigan became a student organization and was later sponsored by the Department of Sociology.

The group provides peer support and is dedicated to recognizing, raising awareness and resolving the unique needs of first-generation college students.

The four students writing the essays below are current members of First-Gens @ Michigan and share vital elements of their journeys to higher education. They review very real challenges, but also identify special, yet familiar first-gen strengths that help them explore new social places. Their experiences reflect a wide range of difficulties many colleges and universities frequently face when publicly acknowledging social class difference. This type of social diversity impacts students in multiple ways. These first-gen students make visible what is too often invisible.

Dwight Lang is faculty advisor to First-gens at Michigan. He teaches in the sociology department at the University of Michigan and is an Contributor.

Being a first generation college student is a burden and blessing. I deal with difficulties others don’t understand: financially, socially, academically and personally. But I’m also given opportunities to shape my future in ways I truly want, with few predetermined paths or expectations.

My first semester was very trying. I arrived with guilt after leaving my family behind and seeing broken friendships from jealousy and resentment. I spoke differently than classmates and didn’t have enough money for books, let alone fancy clothes. I was afraid everyone would somehow find out I was broke, scared and lost. Would I be told I didn’t deserve to be here: that it was some kind of mistake? I thought about leaving because I felt I wasn’t good enough to study at such a prestigious place.

But after discovering First-Generation College Students @ Michigan, I found myself again. I learned all these feelings are common for kids like me, and first-gen issues aren’t paid enough attention at universities around the country. I realized I would never belong if I couldn’t be comfortable with who I am and where I’ve come from. With their help I was able to make a home at my college, just like everyone else. I continue to carve my own path, so that one day my sister, my children and their children can learn without fear. I may be the first, but I won’t be the last.

Anna Garcia is a sophomore and was born and raised in Lincoln Park. She majors in English and plans to study medicine.

My parents never had the chance to attend college, but that didn’t stop them from reversing that trend in their family. Unlike many lower-income situations, my parents are my strongest line of support. They encourage me to stop at nothing in pursuit of my dreams and goals. Although they worked as clerks, our family started off with a sizeable inheritance which soon ran out as the economy turned down. My father’s business was lost and we struggled financially.

Planning for college during high school included long hours of school work and activities, but also up to 20 hours of paid work per week. With determination to persevere through all odds, I graduated sixth in my class of 600 on my way to the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. My most vivid memory was staring at more than $50,000 dollars of out-of-state cost. This first year has been almost completely financed by my efforts to find college funds.

So here I sit in the library with a bright, yet financially insecure future. I tell not a story of rags to riches, but riches to rags. With overwhelming family support, I have done the near impossible to succeed so far at Michigan and hope the coming years hold that same theme.

Chris Reynolds is a freshman from Sellersville, Penn. and majors in aerospace engineering, with a minor in multidisciplinary design.

It seems like college is a social norm nowadays, even for students who are first in their families to attend college. College was an assumed path others expected me to take. Throughout K-12 experiences I did everything on my own since my parents, who emigrated from China and did not attend high school, could not help me with homework. I navigated the waters of high school and figured out how to get to college. I knew it was not just what I did inside the classroom that mattered, but what I did outside the classroom as well.

Even though my parents knew next to nothing about college admission processes, they supported my goals. It was an unspoken expectation that I’d attend the University of Michigan. Even now they don’t say much to me about college, but my dad says he knows he can’t help me with academics. He tells me to not put too much pressure on myself and enjoy the college experience.

As a first generation college student I feel there are strong expectations for me to do well because I am first in my family to take this new path. Even though I’m independent and feel most of my academic success depends on me alone, I‘m beginning to realize there are many people willing to help me succeed.

Melody Ng is a freshman from Sterling Heights. She is currently undecided about her major field of study.

It was not until my last year of middle school that I ever thought about going to college or having a life outside Battle Creek. I always assumed I would work in a factory like everyone in my family. Fortunately, my teachers and counselors saw academic potential and encouraged me to apply for a generous college scholarship. I received this life altering $32,000 in front of my family, peers, and their families at our eighth grade graduation ceremony. That evening sealed my fate as a first-generation college student.

Four years later I packed up my life and bags to move to Ann Arbor. I was amazed and horrified to see so many students from very wealthy families and lives different from mine. I feared that I’d be all alone, my clothes wouldn’t be nice enough or I hadn’t traveled enough. The hardest part was even my first roommate was one of these people, so there was no escaping feelings of inadequacy. Eventually, I found a group of friends on my dorm hallway who I could be myself around. This bliss was short lived after my best friend transferred to another school and others intentionally excluded me because they didn’t make efforts to understand me.

As the end of my second year of college approaches things are looking up. I know who I want to be, what I want to do, and I’ve met some rather extraordinary people. It’s been a roller coaster time, and I’ve become an even stronger and better person than that oblivious middle school girl.

Danielle Boshers is a sophomore majoring in Earth and Environmental Science with minors in Math and Oceanography.


Dwight Lang is faculty advisor to First-gens at Michigan. He teaches in the sociology department at the University of Michigan and is an Contributor.



Sat, Apr 20, 2013 : 9:47 p.m.

A delightful article, and I really enjoyed reading the essays by these four students. Best of luck to them and all the first-gen students at Michigan. So much sad news in the world, it was good to read this.


Fri, Apr 19, 2013 : 1:08 p.m.

I was a first -generation college student and I wish there had been a group like this when I was in school. Hats off to you Mr. Lang!