Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the First Generation Freshman Dinner, which was hosted by the Hidden Minority Council, Dean Valerie Smith and Vice President Cynthia Cherrey. My role at this dinner was to join a group of freshmen and a faculty member, listen to their conversation, and take notes on any interesting comments on the experience of being first generation at Princeton or suggestions that these students had about how Princeton might do a better job serving the first-generation or low-income community.
It was a powerful experience to listen to the stories of these nine freshmen. They were incredibly perceptive and inquisitive, and their conversation encouraged me to reflect on my own experience as a first-generation, low-income student.
Being first generation comes with its own unique set of questions and challenges. Where do I stay over breaks when I can’t afford to fly home? Will I fit in with people who come from much wealthier backgrounds? How do I explain a liberal arts education to my family when they ask why college is important?
(Answers: 1. The dorms remain open for students over every break. Additionally, one dining hall will remain open over every break except winter break. 2. You’ll be amazed to find out that it’s almost impossible to discern who comes from what kind of background at Princeton. When I attended a Princeton Quest Scholars function for the first time, I was shocked to find out that some classmates I had known for years were first generation or came from low-income families. If you don’t tell anyone that you are first generation, no one will know and no one will assume. 3. Explaining a liberal arts education is trickier and I leave that up to you. You know your families best!)
There is one question, however, which I believe is the hardest: Do I belong here?
I come from a tiny town in Wisconsin, where I was raised in a tight-knit community that emphasized the good Midwestern values of hard work, honesty and family. From kindergarten, I attended classes with the same 35 classmates. We went to the same church every Sunday. We all played sports together. Every few years, one of my friends might leave; every few years, a new student might enroll. We were all of modest backgrounds. My father was a welder. My mother is a cashier. Neither attended college. There is very little that distinguishes me from anyone else from Rio, Wisconsin, and that is something which has haunted me for years. I asked myself, Why me? when I came to Princeton for my freshman year. I don’t deserve this.
I think it is natural for any student who walks through Princeton’s gates to question whether he or she belongs at this school. I think it is particularly easy for a low-income, first-generation student to believe that he or she does not belong here. But the truth is you do belong here. No matter what your background, you are not a mistake. For me to feel comfortable at Princeton, I had to recognize I was not here despite my background, nor was I here because of my background. My background is simply a part of me.
Certainly there are moments when it is difficult to be a low-income or first-generation student at Princeton. As I mentioned above, there might be times when you might not be able to afford to fly home for the holidays, or when your family questions why you’re bothering going to college anyway. But there are so, so many people at Princeton who will accept you for who you are and who will be willing to help you through these moments. Princeton does its best to ensure that you will never miss out or be discriminated against for being first-generation or low-income (just look at the incredible financial aid programs and the slew of Princeton-funded internships and trips), and that is something for which I am incredibly grateful.