Surviving College as a First-Generation College Student

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Surviving College as a First-Generation College Student

I am Allen Williams, and I was born and raised in the urban core of Saint Louis, Missouri, a city stricken with racism, poverty, and gun violence.  I was born as the middle child of three to a middle-class family with a disabled veteran father and a mother employed as a factory worker. My upbringing had a significant impact on what I knew about and how I valued education. I grew up determined to change the narrative for young black men like myself in Saint Louis.

In August of 2014, Michael O.D Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed in the streets of Ferguson, MO. This horrid event prompted widespread protests throughout my neighborhood for over a year. The unfamiliarity and perspectives from the media made me feel like an outsider within my own community, but it awakened a deeper sense of consciousness within me. I had recently graduated from a majority-minority career technical education high school and with all the chaos that was taking place in my community, I questioned if going off to college was the right decision for me. However, I knew deep down that a quality college education would equip me to help my community overcome many of the social and societal barriers we face. Therefore, I packed my bags and started my academic journey at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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Being the first person in my family to go off to college was a huge accomplishment but I was presented with various challenges [Check out First-Generation Fact Sheet]. I spent majority of my undergraduate career learning to navigate the collegiate sphere rather than focusing on my academics. During those four years, I acquired a myriad of unique skills. I learned to cope, manage grief, and heal, all of which contributed to my successful competition.

As a freshman, I struggled to adjust to the collegiate environment, which ultimately led to academic and social challenges. Each day I felt alone and began to question my value to the campus. I felt like an outsider, yet again. As a result, I chose to isolate myself and did not prioritize my academic obligations. At the end of my first semester, I was notified that I would be placed on academic probation if I did not improve my GPA.  During this time I was reminded that my reason for attending college was to equip myself, my family, and my community with essential tools.

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Committed to addressing these habitual factors that once halted my success. I sought out organizations that could support me. I had the privilege of serving in various leadership capacities on campus. I was elected as the president of The African American Student Union and later served as the vice-president for the Student Government Association. As the liaison between students and administrators, I was determined to craft a student experience—enriched in inclusion and involvement—that I had initially hoped for myself.

The unwavering commitment of numerous student affairs professionals transformed the remainder of my collegiate experience and my life.  My mentors reminded me to chase my dreams appropriately not aimlessly and provided me with resources that shifted my experience. I signed up for academic check-ins and joined multiple affinity-based organizations.  I was greeted with seeds of friendship, confidence, and support that have sprouted life-long lessons of self-acclamation. It was during this combination of drastic life changes that I realized higher education was the career field I would pursue. I want to plant seeds of confidence in individuals to help them lead and make a difference in underrepresented communities. 

During this time, I learned more about student affairs and I gained critical experiences in program planning, leadership development, and a critical understanding of the higher education enterprise. Simultaneously, while experiencing all of these things, I witnessed the larger systems that impact first-generation college students’ access and retention. In that moment, I decided to center equity and social justice at the core of my practice. I understood the role of a student affairs professional to extend far beyond administrative duties due to my mentors. Therefore, I have made a commitment to target both the professional and personal development of all students, which includes critical mentorship, early intervention programs, efficient advising, and more.

I am now pursuing my master’s degree in Higher Education Management at the University of Pittsburgh. My role, as I transcend from a graduate student into a professional, is to not falter to the dangers of a single story. My path as a first-generation college student made it clear how the collegiate experience truly enhances life.  This is where my dedication to evolve as a scholar and professional comes from.  Which is why I continue to seek opportunities to advance my skills in moral and ethical professional practice, culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies, and student engagement.

As I embark on the beginning of what I hope to be a long student affairs career, I situate myself as a lifelong learner committed to crafting a culture of care. Students’ educational experiences should be contextualized to their backgrounds and suppositions of the world. The work is continuous. The learning never ends [Advice for Perspective First-Generation Graduate Students].

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My one piece of advice I have for first-generation college students is to learn to clearly articulate your needs and advocate for yourself.  For student affairs professionals, my one piece of advice is to be intentional about crafting a support network, and additional opportunities within the university that help students reach their potential.


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Written by:

Allen Williams, The Leadership Brainery Research Fellow [LinkedIn]

Allen is a first-generation college graduate currently pursuing his master’s degree in Higher Education Management.

The Leadership Brainery is a nonprofit for first-generation and diverse college student leaders to prepare for and gain access to graduate and professional schools.