O’DONNELL: The first-generation narrative

I am heartened by recent discussions about class and the experiences of first-generation college students from underprivileged backgrounds in the News. In the online comments and discussions on Facebook walls, this piece has opened up a critical dialogue around an underexplored, uneasy issue. But between you and me, my fellow first-generation college students: it doesn’t get better (to modify Dan Savage’s ubiquitous phrase), at least not entirely.

Sure, you are now wandering the halls of one of the most elite institutions in the world. That institution, moreover, throws a dizzying number of new and exciting opportunities at you each day. You take classes from some of the smartest people in the world. You eat in college dining halls with the children of doctors and senators, who came here from places like Choate and Buckingham Browne & Nichols. You have made something of yourself. It is exhilarating.

According to social scripts, you are not supposed to be here. But you find solace in narratives about overcoming adversity, as others (or perhaps even you, in personal statements for internships) try to fit this trajectory into some Horatio Alger mold. Maybe you even take pride in that story, as you should.

What no one tells you, though, is you will always have a slight chip on your shoulder. Even after making the initial transition to a place like Yale, the ghosts of your past will still be there. They will haunt your peripheral vision and taunt you. Your background may have been rendered invisible by now, but its effects linger. Your history at home is vastly different from most of your peers, and it makes you undeniably different. A nagging voice in your head whispers: you’re just a gatecrasher at this country club party.

Even as a graduate student here, I am frequently reminded of this fact. It happens when I least expect it. While preparing for section one afternoon last semester, I read an assigned New York Times article about the cost of health insurance. When the author described the federal poverty line, I had a flashback to a time not long ago. I vividly recalled the day I filled out the FAFSA as a senior in high school, feeling pessimistic about my ability to afford college even if I got in somewhere. In the space for “Parent’s Total Amount from Worksheet A” I wrote in $9,288 for the year.

I was the first in my family, a significant percentage of us on welfare, to go to college. My mother was a single parent, receiving social security checks and food stamps that barely provided for our small family of two. That FAFSA number was shockingly low and it stung to remember.

I needed a break from my planning for section to walk around the medical library, shedding a few tears and collecting myself. How, I wondered, could I possibly talk about poverty with my students? I was also terrified in this history of medicine class to talk to my students about other things — for example, the ways that eugenic sterilization policies targeted the poor. I worried that my voice would break when discussing Carrie Buck.

Despite my fear and discomfort, I tried to push my students to sympathize with historical figures and to attempt to understand lived experiences, as much as possible. This is how I cope, pedagogically and personally, with difficult subjects — by emphasizing empathy. As uncomfortable as it feels sometimes, confronting these issues makes them bearable.

You, pullers of bootstraps, will go on to do great things. I am proud of the things that I have done myself, including getting into a Ph.D. program here. At times, though, it is difficult and lonely. I applaud the authors of the recent News article and opinion column for broaching such a vexing topic. It is by beginning such conversations and speaking openly about class, in addition to other identity categories, that we can truly overcome our backgrounds and our baggage.

Kelly O’Donnell is a student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences .

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