By Jannet Román
In my secondary education pedagogy class, we often discuss schools commonly referred to as troublesome — schools for which we seek remedies through talking points in the classroom. Here, I realized that these conversations reflected my own experiences growing up in a disadvantaged socio-economic environment and ultimately becoming a first-generation college student, as my parents do not have a college or even high school education. It felt surreal listening to students in my class share their experiences with “these at-risk children,” as I was once one of them.
Consequently, I was reluctant to share my own experiences as a low-income, first-generation college student because I had an irrational fear of being perceived as an inferior student. I felt a palpable insecurity that led me to believe I was and am not a good enough student simply because of my background.
First-generation students like myself experience upbringings marred by poverty, low social mobility and other inhibiting forms of adversity that impact an at-risk students’ potential of gaining access to higher education. These factors — which many of my peers don’t understand from personal, firsthand experience — explain my peers’ shock and desire to engage in theoretical classroom conversations about “how to help these kids” succeed.
I had become accustomed to the general lack of students like me within the university, and the occasional remarks of shock from peers who could not believe I was the first person in my immediate family to attend college. I nonetheless felt comparable to an alien as the subject of several discussions and textbook chapters that stressed the importance and difficulty of successfully working with at-risk youth.
I therefore continued to sit quietly in our classroom as those around me discussed their disbelief at the lack of resources available at some of the underprivileged schools in the Reno/Sparks area and their shock as to how these students succeed at all. As a result, I constantly asked myself, “Do I belong here? Is higher education within my reach if the resources are so scarce and odds so slim?”
Having attended local, low-income schools throughout my K-12 education, I can only recall a handful of teachers who sincerely followed some of the methodology and pedagogy emphasized in pre-service teacher classrooms. While receiving a college degree was something I knew I wanted to accomplish, it felt more like a dream than a reality. Rarely did I feel empowered to attend college by teachers and administration.
It wasn’t until my sophomore and junior years in high school that I had the privilege of meeting teachers who believed in their students’ ability to succeed, held high standards academically, and offered guidance through the college and financial aid application processes.
As pre-service teachers, the previous qualities are some we are trained to obtain. As such, the importance of relating our course material to the experiences of the students in our classroom as a method to engage youth who would otherwise not be engaged — whether that be through college preparedness programs or diverse course material — is instilled within aspiring teachers.
While these college classroom discussions and courses are extremely important, I am left wondering to what extent they are practically implemented as I reflect on the few (and ultimately insufficient amount of) teachers I was fortunate to come to know only within my last couple of years of compulsory education.
I can only conclude that these critical discussions should not simply stay in the classroom. They should actively and pragmatically be used outside of the classroom to contribute to a solution that will create heightened social mobility, self-confidence, and academic success and opportunities for students from marginalized, low-income and first-generation backgrounds.
As a third-year college student, I have now come to embrace my reality as a first-generation college student making my way toward graduating. Being a recent admit to the university’s College of Education has made me reflect on what it means to be a first-generation college student and a product of the compulsory education I received up until that feat.
I’ve realized that I do belong here, as every child should — irrespective of their background, upbringing, and parents’ level of educational attainment. I think back on my younger self in high school: a teenage girl completely unaware that scholars and teachers would later talk about students like me in great detail as pedagogical tools. Little did I know that professors would use stories like mine to explain how to engage at-risk youth, teach to their interests, relate to them, and more. Moreover, I would never have imagined that my classmates would discuss my reality for the benefit of their development as future educators.
With these insights in hand, I encourage those who intend to work with all students to not forget the first-generation student and to actively work to implement the methodology and pedagogy learned and discussed. Class discussions about disadvantaged youth should ultimately not simply stay in the classroom, as we need educators who are trained to be receptive to the needs of all students, especially those who are considered at-risk.
Jannet Román studies secondary education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.