This article was originally published on November 6, 2019.
First-generation students are a huge part of the modern UM-Dearborn identity. In fact, in recent years, nearly 40 percent of the university's student body has been made up of students who are among the first in their families to pursue a college degree. Each student’s experience is, of course, unique. But as a group, first-gen students also face some headwinds. Knowledge gaps about how to get ready for college, inexperience with complex financial aid systems, and not knowing where to turn for help are just a few of the big ones. You’ll see these themes and others in our recent conversation with four UM-Dearborn students who were kind enough to share some of their personal first-gen highs and lows. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Reporter: Many of the challenges first-gen students face seem to derive from not having someone in your family to show you the ropes. And those struggles can manifest way before you get to college. Could a couple of you tell us about your decision to pursue college and how that process went for you?
Marwa Hachem: So my story is kind of an interesting combination of things. To be honest, I didn’t know that you could choose not to go to college; and at the same time, I didn’t know where to start. I remember it was December, like right before the first set of deadlines, and my friends asked me, ‘Hey, Marwa, where are you at on your college applications?’ And I was, like, ‘What’s that?’ I honestly didn’t know, and I was kind of embarrassed that I didn’t know. So I applied really late. Some of the schools’ applications were so confusing, I just didn’t apply. I was sort of panicking. It felt like there was this deadline that was approaching, and if I didn’t make it, it was the end for me. I mean, now I know that’s not true. But, like I said, college just felt like something you had to do or else something bad would happen to you.
Zeinab Hachem: My story is a little different because and I did have an older sister who had started college. But by the time I was applying, she had taken a break and she was focusing on work. It was stressful for her, so I was hesitant to ask her for help. I actually started out at Henry Ford College and the big thing I ran into right away was a problem with my FAFSA application. When I submitted it, Henry Ford College requested more documents from me. But I didn’t know that could be part of the process. Based on the information I got from my sister, I thought once you complete the FAFSA, you were OK to register for classes. So I got held up sorting out that additional paperwork, which took all the way into November. And because I didn’t have that aid, I only had enough financial resources to take classes part time. It was a really stressful way to start. But I persevered, and eventually things turned around.
Reporter: So let’s talk more about those early days of arriving on campus. Alaa, do you want to jump in here and tell us about your first impressions of college?
Alaa Abouhashim: So the first time I stepped onto campus, I was a little shocked. Where I went to high school, it was crowded and always really loud. Here, people were quiet and sitting and studying; they seemed so focused. It was like I was in a new world. I mean, it was a nice environment, but I was also, like, ‘Whoa, we’re done with all the childish stuff now — I’m an adult.’
The main thing I struggled with when I got here was I knew I wanted to become a doctor, but I didn’t really know how to start pursuing that. To be honest, I was looking for the “pre med” major, but then I learned there’s really no such thing. My dad said, ‘Why don’t you just do biochem? That’s what they all do.’ So I looked into that, but it didn’t seem like a great fit. Then I tried public health — then health policy studies. Then I took a medical anthropology class, and I really liked it. So it was a lot of trial and error. I know a lot of students experience that, but I think first-gen students have to do a little bit more of it, because you don't have people you can ask. I think my dad still doesn’t get why I’m not a biochem major!
Brandon Queen: I can definitely relate to that. I was completely undecided coming in, and understanding how the different tracks worked felt like a huge undertaking. My strategy was to come in, pick some core classes that I had to do anyway, and then take my first semester to figure out what’s next. Seems reasonable, right? But then I started hearing that I shouldn’t take all my pre-reqs at once because then you're crowding your last years with your major coursework, and those classes aren’t always offered exactly when you need them. So it was all very confusing because you’re piecing together all these bits of information from all over the place and trying to figure out what’s the best path.
Some of that is not specific to first-gen students. But one thing I think is more first-gen specific is this feeling that every tiny decision that I made would absolutely impact the trajectory of my life. I’ve realized now after being here for three years that it’s not quite so high stakes. If you pick the wrong major, you can switch. If you pick a major and graduate with it, you can still end up having success in a different field. So every move matters, but not every move is make or break. That’s something I had to learn for myself over time, and it’s been really important in bringing down my stress level. There were definitely times when I was feeling the pressure.
Reporter: One last question for everyone: One of our professors here who does a lot of mentoring of first-gen students says that sometimes having your degree can open up a social divide between you and the rest of your family. I’m curious if that’s something you’ve experienced or thought about.
Alaa: That’s a really interesting question. I do think it will cause some sort of divide. I don't know what that will look like exactly, but hopefully it will be OK. When you go to school, it’s not just about what you’re learning from the classes. You’re also getting more life experience, you think differently, you’re more open-minded about things. I think you learn to analyze things for yourself, and what you believe is not just what the culture or society says you should believe. So with my parents not having that kind of experience, their beliefs might come more from culture or tradition. And if I have different ideas, I could see that causing that kind of divide the professor is talking about.
Zeinab: One thing I’ve noticed is that because my mom doesn’t speak fluent English, it’s sometimes harder for me to translate into Arabic some things I want to tell her about school. My dad, though, speaks fluent English, and so I can talk with him more about what I’m learning in my classes. It’s actually been pretty fun because I recently switched my major to small business management, and my dad used to own a small business. So he gives me his advice, and we talk about stuff I’m learning. In some ways, it’s given us something to connect over, though that’s more difficult with my mom because of the language barrier.
Brandon: I haven’t experienced anything like that. In my family, we have differences of opinion sometimes, but I think that’s as much a generational thing as anything. And I think that’s OK, normal — even healthy. As far as college, my family is extremely supportive. They’re always asking me about projects I’m working on. For example, I recently had a late-night call with Malaysian colleagues as part of my internship, and they couldn't wait to ask me all about it. It’s kind of like they can experience a little bit of college through me. They really seem invested in seeing where this is taking me.
Marwa: In my whole extended family, I can only name two people who actually finished their degrees. So it’s a really big deal in my family. My mom talks about me as “Marwa, our college student.” She’s so proud that this is where I’m at right now. And I think that’s something that motivates me. It’s hard for me to think about how I would continue moving forward if my family didn’t feel like I was doing something good, you know?
Being a first-generation student really is an identity. People don’t look at it that way. But it’s not like I chose to be first-gen; this is part of who I am that I can’t erase. And some people think of it as a negative, but I think of it positively. I find myself to be more perseverant. If I pass an exam with a really high grade, for example, I did that without having the benefit of anyone telling me how to prepare. And I think that makes every accomplishment much richer.