Being first at any­thing is hard, but being first at col­lege is a bewil­dering and some­times ter­ri­fying experience.

I work with a schol­ar­ship pro­gram at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity that funds stu­dents from under­priv­i­leged back­grounds; all are first-​​generation col­lege atten­dees, most are from poor fam­i­lies, and with a few excep­tions, either they or their par­ents are recent immi­grants. This past week I gave a class sim­u­la­tion, offering a lec­ture on a com­plex polit­ical issue to a group of schol­ar­ship final­ists. They were being judged on their respon­sive­ness in the class, their ability to grasp the infor­ma­tion and to process it. It was the end of a long inter­view day, and I could feel not only their exhaus­tion, but their need to prove them­selves worthy of this award.

I feel a close affinity with this group: my mother was an immi­grant from a large–and poor–family from a coal-​​mining area in Scot­land, and my paternal grand­mother and great grand­mother were both immi­grants, set­tling in blue collar areas. We were def­i­nitely a working class family and my gen­er­a­tion of sib­lings and cousins were the first to attend col­lege, a point of pride, but also skep­ti­cism from the older folks.


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