I grew up in a low-income household in a small town on Prince Edward Island. I did not come from an educated family that could help me with my homework beyond early elementary school or grow up surrounded by people who could provide guidance about a future outside of P.E.I. I did not have the luxuries afforded to so many people simply by being born into wealth. I am a first-generation university student.
First-generation university students face a unique set of struggles and forms of marginalization that are rarely, if ever, addressed at the universities they attend. Simply defined, a first-generation university student is a student whose parents did not have the privilege of attending university. Students that fit this criteria are often from rural, low-income areas.
Being a first-generation university student is sitting at Meal Hall and overhearing people laughing about failing a midterm and losing their scholarship while knowing that if you lost your scholarship you would have to drop out of university. It is the look of mild disgust and disbelief you see in the eyes of fellow students when they learn that your parents are not doctors or lawyers or businesspeople but a liquor store employee and a salesman. It is sitting in an economics classroom listening to rich dudes advocate for austerity measures that would have sent your family to a food bank.
The word that I would most closely associate with being a first-generation university student is fear. Fear that someone will mock my low-class accent during a presentation or that a professor will realize I am not from some fancy, well-funded school and think that I am not worth their time. Fear that every time I get a grade below my threshold of acceptability that I will never be good enough or rich enough to excel in an institution that was built to exclude people like me.
I feel like I have to be two different people depending on whether I am at home or at school. At home, I rarely talk about my degree, classes or beliefs for fear that my family will think I have assimilated into the kind of person that would look down on them. When I am at school, I cannot talk about my childhood spent digging piss clams for supper at the shore or my secret joy of entering a Walmart since it was one of the only stores where I would ever get unused clothing as a child.
I feel incredibly isolated when fellow students discuss their ambivalence at a family vacation in California or summer jobs that earn above minimum wage. I feel incredibly angry when middle- or upper-class students talk about how “poor” they are because for once in their lives they have to manage their own money and cannot afford the brand-name ketchup.
I am extremely proud of the person I am today, not in spite of my lower-class upbringing, but because of it. I love that I am hard-working and reliable because there was no other option in my family. I love that my friends can ask me for help with budgeting because I learned how to be practical at such an early age. And I love that I would never even consider shaming someone for their background unlike so many students at Mount Allison that have unintentionally made me feel less-than.
I did not grow up with parents who could help me with a science fair project or afford to save for my education, but I do not for one second regret any of that. I feel unendingly privileged to attend university as it has not been an option for virtually anyone in my entire extended family. I am a better person because of the struggles I have faced, and I will not ever accept a rich kid trying to shame, degrade or pity me for my socioeconomic status. To all fellow first-generation university students, I am incredibly proud of you.