First-generation college students adjust to Brown

By
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Karen Pridham P’10 had no qualms about her daughter Julie’s decision to go to college, but helping her daughter through a process she was unfamiliar with was overwhelming. Julie Pridham ’10 came to Brown last year as a first-generation college student.

“As a parent, we don’t have words of wisdom to encourage our students to feel free to talk to professors openly … because we don’t have anything to relate to,” Karen Pridham said. “We can’t guide them in their first adventures out in the college world.”

Julie Pridham thought she had adjusted well her freshman year, until she met with a group of first-generation students and realized she needed this community of support.

“I never knew there were other people who felt the same way that I do,” Julie Pridham said. “It was amazing to me, thinking that I had it all figured out and I can do it on my own, and then realizing that there are really people who are in a similar boat who I can relate to on this level.”

Because of her experiences adjusting to life at Brown, Julie is now helping to organize the First Generation Mentoring Group, or First-Gen, which hosted a reception for first-generation college students and their families during Parents Weekend. Kisa Takesue ’88, associate dean of student life, said she thinks this was the first event of its kind held during Parents Weekend.

Linda Dunleavy, associate dean of the College for fellowships and pre-law, is among the group’s faculty and administration advisers, and she has been informally advising first-generation students for some time. Dunleavy says the percentage of first-generation college students has been growing. First-generation college students represented 15 percent of the applicants admitted into the class of 2011. That number was up from 12 percent in the class of 2010.

“I think that the culture at Brown is that a lot of the parents and students are fairly well-educated, and students have their families to rely on as a resource,” Dunleavy said. “(Students have) this whole other level of resources and support as they move through their college education at Brown. … Students who are the first in their family to go to college don’t have that whole other layer of support outside of the University.”

Last year, Dunleavy sent letters to a group of first-generation students, asking them how Brown could better support them. With a group of students, Dunleavy organized a panel of faculty and administrators who shared the students’ experiences as first-generation college students.

First-Gen has emerged from students’ initiative, Dunleavy said. “It’s really important for the students to support each other and meet new students and support them,” she said.

“I think a lot of it is just very personal,” Julie Pridham said. “Because Brown is such an elite school, a lot of people feel like it’s a lot of legacy students who go here, so they don’t feel as comfortable sharing their own experiences.”

Shane Reil ’09, a Herald sports columnist, said he would have appreciated the chance to share his experiences as a first-generation college student with those from similar backgrounds. “There’s definitely places you can go for help and people you can talk to, but it’s not really addressed. … You have to figure things out on your own,” Reil said. “I had trouble adjusting as a freshman. Had I known about something like (First-Gen), it would’ve been different.”

Ashley Anderson ’10 agreed that students often feel uncomfortable sharing with their peers that they are first-generation college students because “you don’t think that anyone else can possibly relate.”

Dunleavy agreed. “Being first-generation in some ways is almost an ‘invisible other’ at Brown,” Dunleavy said. “Students can’t really identify each other, as opposed to other kinds of, I suppose, marginal status (like) race, gender.”

The University may consider formal support for first-generation college students as well, Dunleavy said, adding that she chaired a faculty and administration meeting on student mentoring that touched on first-generation students’ needs.

Deputy Dean of the College Stephen Lassonde became involved with First-Gen after serving as faculty liaison for a similar group at Yale, where he was a dean until this summer. Increasingly, Lassonde said, campuses are recognizing the different experiences of first-generation students.

“For a lot of people when they come to college, it’s to transcend their parents’ socio-economic background. And in coming to college, in a way it’s kind of denying your own past, and that’s something that’s not easy to talk about,” Lassonde said. “When people discover that there are other people going through the same thing … it’s an important moment for people individually to recognize what’s been happening to them psychologically and emotionally that they haven’t been able to put a name to. One way a former student described it as though someone was telling jokes and they never understood the punch line.”

Douglas Brown, director of the Writing Support Programs, who serves as a faculty adviser for First-Gen, was a first-generation college student. When he attended Wesleyan University as an undergraduate, it took two years for him to adjust to what he perceived as the culture of privilege there, he said.

“I remember when I arrived there was a sense that I was surrounded by people for whom this was the logical eventuality, that everything in their lives was preparing them for this moment when they would arrive at Brown, Wesleyan or Yale,” Brown said. “And they were kids from prep schools high-fiving each other. I had no idea there was a huge culture of privilege. I arrived and I couldn’t have felt more like I didn’t belong.”

Lassonde said the growing discussion at Brown about first-generation college experiences, which began two years ago, presents an interesting historical moment in higher education. Brown said the group has formed because a language now exists with which these issues can be discussed.

Among the issues first-generation students face is the additional difficulty of applying for financial aid. The group met with James Tilton, director of financial aid, and Susan Farnum, associate director of financial aid, to discuss issues relating to financial aid, including the clarity of the application and bills.

“Improving the financial aid application … and the visibility of the office as a whole would really improve the types of people who come and apply,” Pridham said.

While First-Gen was formed specifically to address these issues, Anderson is hesitant to extend the group beyond an informal network. The University can do more, she thinks, to help ease students’ transition to Brown and can better address some of the underlying assumptions of privilege in the college process.

“When you get a letter to (A Day on College Hill) thinking that people can just take off school, and parents can take off work and you can just fly on out there, to just have something included saying, ‘Hey, not everyone (can) just do this,’ ” would have been an improvement, Anderson said. She suggested an alternative letter offering support to first-generation students.

Pridham said she hopes First-Gen will reach out to prospective first-generation students by getting more involved with ADOCH and making sure students know that they have a support network on campus. “Hopefully that will also open the door for students coming into Brown with wider ranges of experiences,” she said.