Reflections of a First Generation College Student, 55 Years Later

August 1, 2013

A fellow student who later became a friend told me her first impression of me in college was as a pale girl in plaid Bermuda shorts sitting cross-legged on her bed eating chocolate chip cookies. 

I was terrified of my new "home" at Vassar, an elite college hundreds of miles from my small coal mining community in southwest Pennsylvania. I knew no one and no one seemed interested in getting to know me, including my roommate who had many friends from the private high school she had attended. For the first four days I was there I could not get up the courage to go down to the dining room in the small dormitory to which I had been assigned.  Thank goodness my boyfriend’s mother had sent me off with a gift of homemade cookies!

My father had driven me seven hours to college.  Under normal circumstances my mother would have taken me, except that she had just given birth to my youngest sister.

Neither my mother nor father, first generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, had gone to college.  I was the oldest of their five children. My mother was determined that I would go to a ‘good’ college and thereby raise the family up.  While my father was supportive of me going to college, he had argued that I could just as well go to a nearby state university. My mother prevailed, and so my father drove me four hundred miles, lugged my large trunk up to my second floor room, kissed me on the forehead, and left. 

I stood there realizing I knew nothing.  How to live on my own? How to make friends with these privileged girls? How to play bridge, a game that seemed very popular among them?

I missed my family very much that first semester. Each week I wrote a 15-page letter, detailing my new life to my family.  My first trip home since beginning college was for Thanksgiving.  I was scheduled to take a train into New York City and transfer to another train for the long ride to Pennsylvania. I missed the train. I remember sobbing my dismay and disappointment on the telephone to my mother.  Would I ever make it back home? Finally, I arrived in the large city near my hometown at 2am on a windy and snowy night. I was never so glad to see my father who had travelled forty miles on ice and snow to pick me up.

I was a committed student and earning good grades my first semester.  The devotion to my studies was a survival strategy since I had no social life. As I gradually adapted to this new environment and culture, my social life improved and my grades went down. 

Yet, despite all my efforts, I never learned how to become a member of the “in group” or to play bridge.  Instead, I found a group of people who, for various reasons, did not fit. Together we embraced our marginal status.

One thing I do not remember about that first semester is a single detail about my academic adviser:  Who was he/she?  Where was he/she?  I am certain that my academic adviser had to sign off on the courses I needed to take.  So I must have had some interaction with him or her, but that interaction must have been superficial at best.

Fifty-five years later, having just retired from a 35-year career as a college professor, I vividly remember my own first semester as a first generation college student. My empathy for every first generation college student I met thereafter was immediate and intense.  I understood what they were facing as they left the familiar to enter a new world.
 

Next, the role of advisors >>


Ruth B

Ruth M. Bounous, PhD, LCSW, is a first-generation college student and retired faculty member from both Cornell University and Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, TX. She is currently a psychotherapist in private practice.

 

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This blog is part of the First to Finish College blog project, produced jointly by Demos and SparkAction.

Ruth M. Bounous