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.