First-Generation College Students Are Not Disadvantaged Slobs

Felix J. Aquino, Ph.D.
Vice President of Academic Affairs
Oklahoma City Community College

I am a first-generation college graduate. There . . . I’ve said it. I grew up in a very solid, blue- collar household. My father had an eighth grade education and my mother finished high school.

If one is to believe much of what has been written about those of us raised in similar circumstances and going on to advanced degrees, we have all had to overcome tremendous adversity in reaching our exalted status. The litany of our “deficiencies” is familiar: our parents can’t advise us on navigating college, we don’t do as well on standardized tests, we don’t have academic role models in the house, we’re lower middle-class, and we don’t value learning. The list goes on. Therefore, our task as collegiate educators is to take these slobs and improve them into being productive members of the educated classes—people like us.

I would submit that this view of the non-college educated working class is a result of our applying a deficit model to this group; their problem is that they differ from us. The extent of their difference from us is the extent of their deficiencies. We assume that they bring little to the collegiate table.

In my own particular case, it is true that, once I was in high school and beyond, there was not much my parents could do to help me, other than being financially and emotionally supportive. I never got help from either parent in figuring out quadratic equations or chemistry valences. It is also true that my parents were of no help to me in navigating college or graduate school. Nor did they have a clue about what was involved in getting a doctorate in anthropology. Fortunately, I found all of the aforementioned pretty easy to figure out on my own.

Did I learn nothing from my parents? Nothing could be further from the truth. However, the valuable lessons they imparted may have been different from those learned by the sons and daughters of the upper middle class. I would like to share some of the most salient.

The value and dignity of hard work. I have vivid memories of my mother, a dressmaker by trade, bringing home piecework to do on her home machine after the dinner dishes had been cleaned up, when economic circumstances required it. There was also no tolerance for any indignity directed toward them, or their children, by anyone.

How to make do on limited resources. It was not until I got to graduate school that I realized how poor we were because, through my parents’ sacrifice, we never lacked for anything.

The value of upward mobility. From very early on, my siblings and I knew that our parents were determined that our lives be different from theirs and that the mechanism for that was education. And a blue-collar background was not something to be ashamed of, but to be proud.

I could go on but my deeper point is this: our challenge as educators is to figure out what strengths all of our students bring to the table and how to build on those strengths and bring them all along, irrespective of their origins.


First-Generation College Students Are Not Disadvantaged Slobs — 2 Comments

  1. Well said, Felix! One of the things most useful for colleges and universities to focus on with incoming students is the strengths each brings to campus because those strengths can be the source of needed resiliency. Many times such students don’t consciously know they possess these strengths, but we can help them discover them — IF we act soon enough and IF we disabuse ourselves of the deficit model and think more about how we can help students use their innate strengths to succeed.

  2. Thank you for saying this, Felix. What you describe is my experience exactly; you could have been writing about me. It looks like what we gained could be more valuable than what we missed.

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