Examining the experiences of first-generation students at Lehigh
Nationwide, approximately 50 percent of the college population is comprised of students whose parents do not have college degrees, according to a 2010 study by the Department of Education. At Lehigh, however, roughly 10 percent of undergraduates are first-generation students, as reported by the Office for Institutional Research.
In addition to their significantly smaller presence on campus in comparison with the national average, Lehigh’s “first-gens” face another hurdle – not only are they the first in their families to pursue a college degree, but they are also doing so at a rigorous academic institution where a large portion of students come from affluent backgrounds.
The challenges of being a first-generation student at a prestigious university such as Lehigh go beyond the academics, and can include social, psychological and socioeconomic obstacles. In an environment like this, it can be tough for first-generation students – many of whom come from lower- or working-class households – to feel as though they belong.
Emily Galka, ’18, a chemical engineering major, is a first-generation student who was born in Poland and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was eight years old. She described coming to Lehigh as a “culture shock” and said recognizing that many of the students at Lehigh were far better off than her family caused her to develop a sense of inferiority that made her question whether she belonged at the university.
“I realized that maybe the way that I had grown up wasn’t the way that other people had grown up,” Galka said, “and I had to learn how to integrate myself into a whole different world.”
Students like Galka feel that the Lehigh community wants students to embrace its culture, but it often fails to provide resources to support students in their transition.
Kelly McCoy, ’17, a journalism major and first-generation student, said she and her family “had no idea” what coming to Lehigh would entail. This lack of preparedness made her transition into college life more challenging.
“I feel like at Lehigh there’s a severe lack of awareness about first-gens and their experiences,” McCoy said. “It seems like we’re just expected to blend in with everyone else and just get with the program.”
Angela Young, ’17, a first-generation student who majors in marketing, said although she didn’t feel discriminated against for being a first-generation student, coming from a lower social class set her apart from other Lehigh students and forced her to acknowledge her financial limitations.
Both Young and Galka said they think it may be easier to be a first-gen at less prestigious colleges, such as state schools, where the social class divide is less prominent.
“I feel like (first-gens who go to public colleges) have that kind of support system there, where the people they’re attending college with come from the same background as them,” Galka said. She said she thinks it is more difficult for first-gens to fit in at high-ranking private institutions like Lehigh.
This, however, does not mean first-gens can’t thrive at the university. Students like Galka, Young and McCoy worked hard to earn their place at Lehigh, and often did so without the help of resources that are available to students whose parents went to college.
“I didn’t have to go to Lehigh,” McCoy said, “but I knew and my parents knew that I had the potential to be able to do something more.”
These students’ parents worked throughout their lives to provide better lives for their families and enable their children to purse higher education. Because of this, the students said they felt more pressure to succeed and to prove themselves.
“(My parents’ hard work) motivates me 100 percent to do well in school and to make sure that I form some sort of connections on my own so that I could get a good job after college and help them out,” Galka said.
Despite their families’ support, however, first-gens see limits to what their parents can provide, compared to other students’ parents.
Young said one of the main challenges she faced in college was not having connections that could help her advance her job search.
“A lot of people get their internships and jobs mainly from their families and networking, and I felt that was something that I had to adjust to,” Young said, “I couldn’t lean back on my parents, say, if I wanted to work somewhere for the summer, because they didn’t go to college so they don’t have as ‘good’ of jobs as the other business students’ parents.”
Similarly, Galka’s parents both work jobs that don’t require college degrees, so they are not connected in industries where she will seek employment after graduation.
“You feel like you have to work that much harder than all of the other students whose parents might even be, like, CEOs of a company,” Young said.
First-generation students are often forced to face their families’ limitations. In coming to college, these students are taking a path that shifts away from the continuity of their parents’ experiences, which may create a discrepancy between them. Because they haven’t had the same experiences, some parents may not be able to empathize with the struggles their children face at school.
McCoy said one of the most unexpected challenges of being a first-gen was realizing that she would not always be able to relate the difficulty of her experiences back to her parents.
“I feel like that sense of separation that feels so small or insignificant currently, that’s only going to grow when I get out of college,” she said.
McCoy said she thinks Lehigh first-gens could benefit from having a support group where they can talk about these sorts of experiences.
“There’s not any sort of community there, where you can rely on other students and say, ‘Hey, are you going through this, too?’” she said.
Galka, Young and McCoy agreed Lehigh should provide more resources to help ease the transition process for first-gens who want support, as well as provide an outlet where students can voice concerns related to the challenges they face.
“I think Lehigh should address that there are first-generation students here and there are lower social classes here,” Young said, “and I think other students also should be more aware of that.”