The experience for first-generation students at Mount Holyoke College needs to be a priority

BY CHLOE JENSEN '20

“Mount Holyoke prides itself on diversity and really needs to do a better job being accessible to first-generation and low-income students,” said Andrea Corbett ’20, a first-generation college student from the Bronx in New York.  For students who are the first to attend college in their family, the experience of confronting classism is unique. For them, overcoming classism at Mount Holyoke is not only about their family’s economic status, but their societal status as well.

Although I grew up in a low-income household, both of my parents are college educated — in fact, my mother is an English professor. While my family has used food stamps and has had to scrimp and save many times to get by, there was never a doubt that — like my mother and father — I would attend college. As an English professor, my mother was always willing to help me with my college essays and school assignments. When there was an assignment or task she did not know how to help me with, she would ask her colleagues to help —  often free of charge. 

Although the ostensible wealth took me by surprise when I arrived at Mount Holyoke, and although my mother did not attend a school like Mount Holyoke, she can relate to my experiences in higher education. Attending college was nothing groundbreaking in my family, but rather something that was expected all along.

The confusion and daze of the world of higher education begins with the college application process. When applying for college and reading financial aid packages, first-generation students are tossed into a whole new world that their parents have very little — if any — experience with. When I was applying to college, I had my mother read my Common App essay and each of my supplements at least once beforeI submitted them. 

Gabby Hernandez ’19, who is the first to go to college in her family,  recalls that throughout the college application process, her dad was very supportive, but could not help her with her applications. When first-generation students apply for college, many of them rely on counselors or teachers for advice rather than family members.

First-generation students feel pressure not only to succeed in academics, but also to make connections in the career world because they will have to find their on a career path without mentorship from their parents.  

Furthermore, this means that being self-reliant and independent is a must. “I had to learn to be a good writer on my own because I knew from an early time that my parents could not help me,” Corbett recalled. 

When students arrive at college, the discrepancies between the experience of first-gen and non first-gen students do not disappear. “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” said Hernandez. I can clearly see this: if I work hard, I know that my family and family friends will be able to assist me along the way. For first-generation students, this is not their reality, which means that they need all the more assistance in navigating the world of higher education.

For many first-generation students, obtaining a degree is more than just fulfilling their dreams and aspirations in life, it is achieving for their parents. Hernandez says that for her going to college is“an opportunity that [my] dad never got.”  She then adds, “Sometimes I think about skipping class, and then I remember, my dad busted his ass for me to get here. There is no way I am going to let him down by not going.”

In order to share their experiences and assist one another in navigating college, organizations and conferences for first-generation students are being created. Hernandez attended the Five College first generation conference at Smith College last semester and felt very welcome; she expressed that she felt as though all of her feelings and experiences were validated. Corbett regularly attends SGA meetings and is a member of the First- Generation and Income Committee, which seeks to plan conferences, meetings and organizational events around supporting low-income and first-generation students. Both Hernandez and Corbett have found refuge in these first-generation spaces. In the future, Mount Holyoke should invest in supporting these spaces.

Wealthy students who come from educated families may feel sorry for low-income and first generation students, but Corbett says that instead, students should, “understand their privilege — don’t pity people because they do not have that same privilege.” For both Corbett and Hernandez, this means making Mount Holyoke a more accessible and sensitive space for first-generation students.

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