Where Do First-Generation Students Go?


If you have listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, you may have heard the true story of a boy named Carlos. Carlos was a kid from a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles who found his way into opportunities usually available only to the upper class. The transition wasn’t easy. He faced social instability, violence, and a string of foster homes, but he managed to keep his grades up enough to make it into an elite school. Carlos became one of a small minority of students in an elite environment who were not born into that space. But Gladwell does not comment on the question of how Carlos fared in that environment. What happens to Carlos once he arrives in the elite school? How does he remain hinged to his background, as a first-generation college student, as a child of the working class?

Carlos arrives in the elite private school in a long convoy of Sedans and Vans. It’s Move-in Day. The lawn is swarmed with anxious parents and harassed first-years, one part eager, another part nervous to meet their roommates. Maybe that day he doesn’t notice. He doesn’t notice the differences between his classmates and himself until he’s sitting in a seminar room with about four dozen fewer students than any of his classrooms back home. And the professor’s asking them a question. Carlos’s friend — you know, the type of friend that you latch onto during orientation before realizing you have nothing in common, but are doomed to endlessly greet with a fake smile and pleasantries — is sitting across the room. He’s engaging the professor in light-hearted banter. Carlos didn’t even know you could do that. Carlos had a select few teachers that served as mentors back home but they never talked about favorite skiing slopes. What even was the difference between cross-country and “Alpine” skiing? 

How do first-generation students remain hinged to their backgrounds?”

Carlos is already behind. Not in coursework, but in something more important : networks. He thought of college as the next step in an academic journey — letter grades, deadlines. He bought into the brochures the college sent along with his admissions letter. His friend was almost ready to convert a conversation about ski techniques for a letter of recommendation while Carlos sat on the sidelines with nothing but a few A-’s on essays the professor didn’t even return in time.

Carlos feels out of place. The people that live on his hall are no different than his friend in class: passionate, nice enough, but just not people that were easy to talk to. Holding a conversation in and of itself was an obstacle. Instead of competing in ski tournaments, or traveling in Nepal, Carlos took care of his little sister back home. He worked for a family restaurant late into the night. Not exactly an ice breaker. Most of his dorm-mates just say, “Oh, that must have been nice.” They can’t relate. That’s not their fault.

When we talk about hinges, we must understood that some students are hinged to their background more than others. The past informs our future, but for Carlos, his past and future are at odds. Carlos stands at a three-forked road. All three roads are pretty barren, deserted, only a few footprints here and there. Maybe Carlos calls down one of the trails and asks one of the few other Carlos’s on campus what to do. Maybe he gets advice. But ultimately, Carlos still finds himself alone at that fork. He has to decide himself.

There’s an infinity of possibilities within the same three-forked road.”

The first road leads to integration. Carlos adopts the mannerisms and speech patterns, maybe even the fashion tastes, of his classmates. He learns how to hold a conversation about skiing and growing his hair long in Nepal. He becomes the affable and well-adjusted student that downplays his background in order to engage his professor in a discussion about Sartre that will eventually land him a stellar recommendation to his dream job at a corporate law firm that affords him a condo in a gentrified area of town. Carlos becomes his classmates.

The second road leads to family responsibility. Carlos realizes that his duty to his family is most important. That’s why he’s getting good grades in the first place, right? His little sister needs him. Performing well in these elite spaces can lead to a job where he makes enough money to get his sister to college, too. Carlos studies his classmates’ social cues enough to land a job at a corporate firm. At the firm, he can earn enough money to lift his entire family out of the working class. Carlos becomes the family breadwinner.

The third road leads back the way he came. Carlos acquires a sense of alienation that propels him to consider the structural factors that make him so different and clueless in the elite private school. Convinced that following his own passion is selfish, Carlos makes the connections necessary to find a job that helps dismantle the system. His job at a nonprofit does not earn him enough money to radically change his family’s conditions, but he hopes to make a bigger difference in society. Carlos becomes the activist.

These roads are not mutually exclusive. In his journey, Carlos might take one path, only to end up on another. Maybe Carlos the classmate donates regularly to organizations that help students like him apply to better schools. Maybe Carlos the family breadwinner hates the system, like the activist, and chooses to go to law school to eventually work in family law, earning both money and opportunities to help others in his same situation. There’s an infinity of possibilities within the same three-forked road.

What remains static, however, is the fact that Carlos is hinged to his background in a way that his classmates are not. His past makes the future more difficult, starting with the three-forked road. And there is no guarantee that Carlos has the liberty to choose on the three-forked road at all. He will graduate college, tears streaming down his face, in the same gown as everyone else. He will hug his classmates. Then, he will start the job hunt. According to research by Hiring Learning Systems, 85 percent of jobs are never advertised. The vast majority of folks score jobs through tapping into their networks. These networks are not only the product of handshakes and Handshake, but also family connections. If the backdoor is the front-door, what about people like Carlos? What about folks whose network is a community of waiters and clerks back home? Does he even have the capacity to choose between the three roads when scoring any white-collar job at all is significantly more difficult for him than his classmates?

America was built on narratives of advancement and meritocracy. The college in and of itself is often sold as the vehicle of social mobility. We champion liberal arts slogans, but deep in our core, we are taught to believe that making it in college is making it in life. But for us working class kids, for those of us like Carlos, the callouses on our parents’ hands and the lines on their temples are built deep into our identities. There are hinges that keep us tied to our past, to our rank, to our social class. 

We are those around you with an unabiding social class anxiety, an impostor syndrome infecting our nerves.”

But let’s assume Carlos has the choice. He is isolated and alone at the three-forked road. The three-forked road represents the obstacle that Carlos confronts by virtue of his background, one his classmates do not share. There’s rarely a separate road for family responsibility or activism for his classmates. The three forks are integrated seamlessly into a highway to success for many folks on campus. Prep school, college, entry-level job, promising career: these are all expected signs that the children of the elite pass as they drive down the highway. The off-ramps to family responsibility and activism are easy to navigate. While Carlos is cutting his way through a jungle that not a single family member of his has ever traversed before with every financial aid paper that he desperately tries to understand, his classmates can drive on a freeway to their dreams. 

Carlos represents many of us who find ourselves here in Middlebury who were not raised with silver spoons in our mouths. We are those around you with an unabiding social class anxiety, an impostor syndrome infecting our nerves. We walk across campus simultaneously blending in and standing out, but we are here. We are those who have a chance to become unhinged from our past, if we so choose.

When I was eleven, two of classmates discovered dismembered body parts in the desert lot next to our school. Those classmates came to class the next day, to write on textbooks thirty years old, in our classroom of fifty students. I’m sure the dismembered hand and torso beneath the tumbleweed still wakes them up at night, if they survived this long. Some classmates dropped out long before high school graduation; some fled to bootcamp; some sank into drug addiction to numb the suicidal impulses that shot through spines every time their mothers screamed at them from sofas. People “get by.” This is by no means a summary of every first-generation experience; it is merely one story, one of many, a Carlos in the small minority on campus whose narratives are rarely heard.

Those of us who are Carlos have already overcome so much.”

For me, neither a high school diploma or a college degree were signs passed on the highway to success. Not me, someone who shares blood with generations of folks who never made it past eighth grade, people whose college experience may just include non-credit courses and night classes. Not me, whose friend back home still works two unstable jobs just to keep her family afloat. Not us named Carlos, whose parents torture themselves every year awaiting the fateful decision of Student Financial Services in calculating our financial aid. We earned our way onto this campus, but we emotionally prepare every semester to leave.

Those of us who are Carlos have already overcome so much. By the time we reach the three-forked road, we have already left many people on the road behind us. Friends of mine earned better grades than me, scored higher test scores than I did, and dreamed bigger and farther than me. But they had to stay behind to help their family’s business survive. Their selfless choice cost them their best shot at social mobility, at the American Dream itself.

We are few in number, here, at Middlebury. Sixty percent of the student body belongs to the top one percent of income in the United States. But we are here, next to you, among you. We are Carlos. We face an obstacle that most of our classmates do not. We don’t know whether we should become more like you or prioritize our family or turn back the way we came and change the system for the better. We don’t know how to negotiate these hinges that keep us from fully integrating with the main student body on campus. We desperately wish to have the liberty to make that choice at all, but we will soon discover the job market may not be so forthcoming. But we will find a way. Whatever road we take, we will have made it farther than those who came before us. We will overcome on this long road. We will find a way to be content, to find meaning, to be happy. 

In this world, to be happy in and of itself is a revolutionary act.