March 2nd, 2020

 By Stanley Chu

Being the first to accomplish something, especially in STEM, is an achievement. Pioneers are lauded for their contributions to the field and remembered for their triumphs. But what’s  often forgotten is the loneliness, insecurity, and oftentimes guilt associated with that journey. First-generation students, those that are the first in their family to attend college, face a similar struggle. While it is difficult to pin an exact definition of who is included in this group, what can be said about first-generation (first-gen) students is that they often “lack the critical cultural capital necessary for college success because their parents did not attend college.”1 This “cultural capital” refers to the intangibles that contribute to student success in a college setting.

As a first-gen student, perhaps one of the toughest challenges I’ve had to face in pursuing higher education was my relationship with my family. My family immigrated to America from Hong Kong in the 80’s. As is true for many immigrant families, the move was inspired with the hopes of having more opportunities in America. It’s the dream of many immigrant parents to watch their kids pursue higher education. While I was able to earn my PhD in STEM, I wasn’t able to share the entirety of this journey with my mother. For one, I simply do not have the Chinese vocabulary to describe Chemical Engineering to my mother. I lack the language to describe my research and to accurately portray the rigors of academia. While my family has been approving in my academic pursuits, they were unable to act as an effective support system during my undergraduate and graduate years when it came to academic affairs.

A group of people sitting at a table with wine glasses</p><br />
<p>Description automatically generated

(From left to right) Me, my sister, and my mom toast my successful thesis defense.  

For many of my peers who are also first-gen, they too experience a lack of family support. It is well documented that students in higher education experience more issues with mental health. A Nature report has suggested that there is a mental health crisis amongst graduate students, with graduate students six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression compared to the general population.2 What is a mentally challenging time for all graduate students is even more so for first-gen students who often find that their family does not or will not understand their mental health issues. In my final months of graduate school, I began therapy sessions and even sought medical help to cope with the pressures of academia. When I shared my decision to seek treatment with my family, I was met with pushback. I was told I wasn’t “depressed”, but “just lazy”. I was told that the decision to take prescription medicine should’ve been a family decision. Many first-gen students come from cultures that do not view mental health as important as physical health. For this reason, I am very vocal about my own experiences and about mental health education.

First-gen students also lack family mentors, specifically in navigating the culture of academia. This may manifest in lacking guidance in selecting what fields to major in, not having safe and effective outlets for venting frustrations, and a general disconnect with family members. Family members who have never gone to college can’t appreciate the unique pressures that one faces in college and graduate school. Family members may even discredit their issues and invalidate their experiences as a first-gen student, further distancing first-gen students from their families.

A group of people posing for a photo</p><br />
<p>Description automatically generated

My advisor, labmates, and I celebrate after I successfully defend my PhD. Graduate school is an academic and emotional challenge. Finding your chosen family that can empathize with your situation is crucial in maintaining your mental health.

First-gen students also receive less help in the college setting and have less resources. Many first-gen students come from low- to middle-income families. Thus, many first-gen students often work in order to support themselves through college. This also means that many first-gen students cannot afford to live on campus, thereby creating a different (and perhaps more isolating) college experience compared to non-first-gen students. While it is great to see more resources available for increasing diversity in STEM, first-generation students are not considered an underrepresented minority, thus there are not as many  opportunities for financial support. And, I believe the biggest disadvantage for first-gen students is that they have to build their professional network from scratch. Many non-first-gen students enter college able to rely on the professional network of their parents. For example, many professional opportunities, such as internships or co-ops, come from family friends.

My intentions with this blogpost are twofold. Foremost, I want to document a small portion of my experiences to spark dialogue in the greater community. It is my hope that by bringing the community together through conversation, first-gen students can find their peers and realize that they are not fighting this battle alone. I have found Twitter to be an extremely powerful platform for connecting with students all over the world. In terms of connecting with first-gen students, @firstgendocs serves as an excellent resource for finding other first-gen students and they also host cyber-workshops and events. Secondly, by bringing more attention to this issue, I hope that academic institutions recognize the legitimacy of the challenges faced by first-gen students and provide additional resources to support first-gen success.  Already, there are several organizations investigating the various statistics 1 about first-gen students as well as serving as a database for financial resources 3 for first-gen students.

The word “trailblazer”, although trite, seems appropriate for first-generation academics. To me, it invokes imagery of audacious explorers, torch and machete in hand, lost in the thick foliage and shrubbery of the jungle. There is no set path to follow and the unknown can often be crippling. But there’s beauty and power in this. To move forward and survive, they must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and use their tools to hack away at the vinery and burn away obstacles. Go forth, make your own rules, and don’t forget to reach back to give others the same chances that helped you succeed.

I would love to connect with you and follow your journey in STEM!

@StanleyChuPhD

  1. Center for First-Generation Student Success. https://firstgen.naspa.org/

  2. Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

  3. rise first. https://risefirst.org/