Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: arriozola

“Bizarre” World: The Impact of Higher Education on First-Generation Students

Every environment has its niche. Whether that be understanding how you (and your face) should respond to Mac Dre in the Bay Area, the importance of the question What part? whenever someone claims they are from Chicago but actually mean the Chicagoland Area (I’m looking at you, Evanston), or even the way that UW-Madison has changed the way that you, a student, experience the words bag, bagel, or vague as they fall from the mouths of your Upper-Midwestern peers.

“I had learned much about law at Yale. But I’d also learned that this new world would always seem a bit foreign to me.” — J.D. Vance

Institutions of higher education can provide an opportunity to interact and learn with folks through individualized, unique perspectives. However, when a campus or institution is grounded within homogeneous cultures and people, any person whose identities counter this homogeneity finds that their experience in the realm of higher education becomes a starkly different experience than that of their peers. First-generation college students, much like J.D. Vance, are well aware of the “bizarre social rituals” (Vance 202) that are embedded into the fabric of higher education deeper than the patchwork of a college apparel crew-neck. In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Vance explains, “I had learned much about law at Yale. But I’d also learned that this new world would always seem a bit foreign to me” (Vance 234).

According to a Quartz article from 2015, first-generation students also tend to experience significant psychological ramifications within the world of higher education. Despite roughly 20% of all undergraduate students attending a four year public or private college or university being considered first-generation students, the disconnect between the student, the family, and the institution still remains. First-gen students often experience a sense of guilt in their ability to pursue the education and opportunities that others in their family were unable to follow, a phenomena called “breakaway guilt.” These factors of psychological stress are further heightened through the reality that first-generation students are more likely, about 50%, to be low-income students, and are also more likely to be “a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.”

(Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Understandably, first-generation students have varying experiences. However, there are “four distinct domains” of difficulty for folks who fall into this category: professional, financial, psychological, and academic. First-generation students are important in the world of higher education, and the acknowledgement of this sector of students within these institutions is also vital. As Vance mentions in Hillbilly Elegy, the experience of a first-generation student is often rooted in the hyper-self-awareness of social factors and expectations that are carried along with them from the first day of class straight through to graduation.

“Sometimes it’s easier knowing that the statistics suggest I should be in jail or fathering my fourth illegitimate child. And sometimes it’s harder — conflict and family breakdowns seems like the destiny I can’t possibly escape.”
—J.D. Vance