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Coming out as poor at an elite university

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Chris Reynolds will never forget his first day on campus at the University of Michigan. He and his dad had gotten up super early to drive the nine hours from Sellersville, Pennsylvania to Ann Arbor.

"My father literally just dropped me off and then left," says Reynolds. His dad couldn’t afford a hotel, so they took about an hour to unpack the car, said their goodbyes, and his dad drove off.

Chris Reynolds was officially on his own.  

What follows are three stories about what it's like to be the first person in your family to go, not only to college, but to an elite university like U of M. 

On having to explain why your parents never went to college

He thought he was pretty prepared, for a freshman; he had a dorm room, a meal plan, and a couple hundred bucks saved up to last him until he found a job. What he didn’t anticipate was how lonely and out of place he felt on campus. 

Reynolds found himself constantly having to field these two questions: "What do your parents do?" and "Where did they go to college?" His answers seemed to make people uncomfortable. His parents didn't go to college. His mom is a housekeeper, his dad's unemployed. He says folks would respond with long pauses, and words like "oh" and "ok." 

"From there," says Reynolds, "where does the conversation go? We've been two minutes into our conversation and there’s nothing to relate."

Most students at U of M, an elite public university, come from middle class or upper middle class families whose parents also went to college. So students like Chris Reynolds are in the minority. University of Michigan officials don’t have exact numbers, but they estimate there are roughly 3,000 students on campus that are First Generation students, many of whom are low-income. 

For students who choose to go to college, there can be lots of stress around getting into their top choice. But for many first generation, low-income students like Reynolds, getting into college is just the first of many hurdles. 

On having to "out" yourself as low-income

Statistically, Anna Garcia seems to have the odds stacked against her. She’s Latina, she’s a first generation student, she’s low-income. All three groups have low college graduation rates. 

Being poor on campus, says Garcia, that was the hardest part. "I think the university is aware that there are many low-income students here, but I don't think they realize how uncomfortable we are."

For her part, Anna Garcia feels like she missed out on a lot. For example, she couldn’t go out with her friends because she had to work the late shift in her dorm cafeteria, and she had to move to Ypsilanti because she couldn’t afford an apartment on campus. 

When school started, she couldn’t afford to buy books because she hadn’t received her scholarship money yet. She called her mom -- it was a very emotional conversation, she says -- and her mom found some savings bonds from when Garcia was a child. While she waited for her mom to cash those in and send the money to her at school, Garcia had to go around to her professors and tell them that she didn't have her books yet.

"I did have some teachers say, well, you got your book list a couple weeks ago ... and I had to tell them I can’t afford it."

Garcia says she feels like she has to “out” herself all the time, and she always has to explain herself – to students who don’t get where she’s coming from, to her family back home that doesn't get what she’s going through at school. Having to navigate between these two worlds, it can be tough.

"I know of many students who have left after their freshmen year because they just felt they couldn’t find their place on campus," says Garcia. She says she "absolutely" thought about leaving U of M. "My whole first semester I thought of transferring." 

She didn’t go through with it. She stayed, and she’s set to graduate this spring as a pre-med English major. She found a first-generation student support group on campus, which she says helped her a lot. It made her feel less alone. 

On comparing yourself to others

Danielle Boshers is from Battle Creek, and she's the first in her family to go to college. She was "absolutely terrified" when she arrived on campus four years ago.

"My roommate and I, we were from completely different worlds. She was very wealthy and everyone in her family had gone to Michigan," says Boshers. "It's just hard to connect to students who come from so much and who have so much, and don't understand where we as First Gens come from." 

Boshers, a Geology major, says the university is "doing quite a bit" for students like her, but she says more can be done in terms of helping professors understand and be sensitive to how diverse the student population is.

She says she had a professor tell her "you can't be a real geologist until you've traveled the world and seen everything." That's just not a realistic option for Boshers. "And I'm sitting in my class and everyone's like, yeah, I went to Europe this summer and saw this mountain and that mountain ... and I'm like, I went home and worked full time at a gas station."

She says the comment made her feel "really small, like I wasn't going to succeed because I didn't have the money to travel the world." 

But she didn't let that deter her. Like her friend Anna Garcia, Boshers says talking about her issues with the First Gen student group on campus helped a lot, and she's determined to find a way to do everything she needs to do to be successful, regardless of how much money she has in her bank account.

The "University of the poor" -- then and now

In his 1879 commencement speech, The Higher Education: A Plea For Making It Accessible to All, U of M president James Burrill Angell talks at length about how the mission of the university is to bring "education within the reach of the poor." A few years later, in 1887, Angell goes so far as to say U of M "has always been, and we are proud of the fact, the university of the poor."

And it's true that the University of Michigan has for centuries enrolled students both rich and poor, but more than a century on, those in the latter category say they don't quite feel at home on campus.

Dwight Lang, a sociology professor at U of M and faculty advisor for the First Generation Students group, shares many of the same concerns as his students. Lang knows first hand what they're going through, since he was also the first in his family to go to college.

He calls first generation students "risk takers and boundary crossers," and he says the university could make "a stronger effort to publicly recognize" first generation students and "talk about the contributions they make, the strengths they bring to the university."

When asked what else they think the university could do to make their experience on campus better, Anna Garcia, Danielle Boshers and Chris Reynolds all said the same thing: make us feel welcome.

Reynolds, who plans to graduate with a degree in aerospace engineering next year, says U of M is really good at providing generous tuition aid packages and helping students like him pay for college, but he thinks the university could do more outreach once the students get on campus. 

"Just to have someone from the university come up and say 'you belong here,' and 'we’re so excited to have you here,'" says Reynolds, "that would have changed everything for me."

The First Generation student group is also trying to raise money for a student center on campus. The center would not only be a place where current first-generation students can go for help and guidance, but it would also be a visible reminder to everyone on campus that there are first-generation students on campus, and they deserve to be there. 

If you missed Dustin Dwyer's documentary, College Material, all about the first generation experience, click here and take a listen.

This post has been updated to reflect that Chris Reynolds is from Sellersville, PA.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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