Braving the elements as a first-generation academic

You worked so hard just to be able to take this photo Leon Wu via Unsplash

I may not know much, but what I do know is that this process is hard

It’s an interesting and challenging experience being the first member of your family to pursue a university education. Looking out at the world now, it is a large expectation that individuals pursue post-secondary education. However, the experience of university is very different from the experience had when pursuing higher education in trades work. It is not as direct, takes many more years, and the expectations for what next steps look like are not always outlined in as clear of a way.

In my case, I am the first person in my immediate family to complete as high a level of university education as I have, as I am nearing the end of my undergraduate degrees. This is something that I am extremely proud of as I hope that the work and dedication I have put into my education show my family the appreciation I have for the hard work they have put in to ensure I have the capacity to pursue such endeavors. It is also something that I realize not everyone experiences in the same way I have. While there was no expectation for me to pursue any kind of university education, I recognize that those who come from families with various levels of higher education have a very different reality as they are expected to pursue more education.

In some ways, I don’t envy those who were pushed by their relatives into the university experience. Being able to choose freely if I wanted more education, where that education came from, or if jumping into the workforce was where my desires fell was a freeing experience that is becoming more uncommon. However, it has come with its own sets of challenges that must be overcome as well.

One of the most notable challenges has been the lack of information regarding the procedures and expectations of the university experience. I walked into my first year with the understanding that one must complete their degree in 4 years, not realizing that you could be a part time student, take terms off, participate in co-op terms, or work on multiple different degrees or certificates at one time. Discovering all of this was shocking and wrapping my head around all the new opportunities this allowed for was overwhelming. Something that seems obvious now but certainly wasn’t at the beginning was the process of building a schedule every term and the idea that courses may not occur at the same time every single semester, or even every day in the week. All of this sounds horrendously obvious to me now, but when you don’t have anyone who knows what these processes look like it is a very large shock to first encounter.

A challenge that everyone experiences, but that I feel presents itself differently when you are the first to embark on this endeavour is the stress of ensuring that you are able to complete the process successfully. Of course, nobody wants to fail courses or fail out of their desired program; this stress increases when you are fumbling through the processes on your own for the first time with the words of your family ringing in your ears. My family all jumped into the workforce immediately after they finished high school, and this process has worked out successfully for them. They were able to gain certificates as they needed and have been able to work their way up the chain of command in their respected areas. Not doing this and instead spending thousands of dollars chasing a fancy piece of paper is difficult to understand when that hasn’t been needed, and the pressure to ensure that I’m successful to justify that this decision wasn’t a mistake can be suffocating at times. Nobody wants to feel like they’re letting their family down, but it feels like a lot more is riding on it when you’re the first one to brave the elements and embark on that journey. If I can survive the process and be successful, it will open up a world of opportunities for myself and my family that didn’t seem possible prior.

One of the things that my experience has shown me is the giant holes in information that are present within the system and the unbelievable challenges that are faced by students who do not have the luxury of leaning on those who have experienced it before. When you don’t know what kinds of information you should be looking for, you have no idea what you’re missing. Of course, we can tell people how to study, take proper notes, and craft professional emails. What we should be telling them are the things that may seem like common knowledge once you know them but are life changing when you have no idea that they exist. This means ensuring that students know we have a writing center, that there are student groups for their departments and faculties that they can engage with, and the importance of interacting with your professors about more than just an exam grade but about their research, and possibilities within the area you’re pursuing. I am hopeful that I have been able to provide ways, even if they are small, for those gaps to be closed just a little bit.

I am forever grateful for being able to embark on this absolutely terrifying journey that is an undergraduate education, and the faith that my family has that I will be successful in my attempts. What that success will look like in the end? I don’t think I’m qualified to decide right now – but I am cautiously optimistic that it will be alright when everything is all said and done.


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