First year Simon Chow doesn’t know how to explain Bowdoin to his parents. They’ve never stepped foot on campus, and as Chinese immigrants living in Los Angeles, they have no context for what a small college in New England is like.
“My parents have never known what it’s like outside a city basically. Like [for me] coming into Brunswick, Maine with all the trees and different colors… It definitely creates two different worlds,” Chow said.
Chow, like roughly 10 percent of students in the class of 2019, is a first-generation college student. That percentage has been fairly consistent for the first year class over the past five years.
In many ways, “first-gen” students face typical challenges: managing school and work, sleep and stress, friends and health. Some, however, face obstacles other students will never have to deal with, like the lull on the other end of the line when trying to explain Bowdoin to their parents.
“My family didn't even know Bowdoin existed,” said Diamond Walker ’17, who grew up in the Bronx. “I don't even think they understand what a liberal arts school means.”
Even though he was born and raised relatively close to campus in Portland, Maine, Mohamed Nur ’19 said some aspects of college—like the social scene—are entirely foreign to his family.
“My parents, they know Bowdoin, but in a very superficial kind of way. They know it’s a college, they know after four years I’ll get a degree,” he said.
Read and listen to the stories of 11 first generation students.
Many first-generation students spoke of the difficulty of explaining the details of their lives at the College to their parents.
Anu Asaolu ’19 said that her Nigerian mother has a hard time seeing college as more than just an academic pursuit.
“Every time I call my mom, she’s just like, ‘Remember, you’re here to learn,’” said Asaolu. “Yeah, college is about learning, but it’s really hard to explain that it’s also about developing yourself and really finding out who you are.”
When Asaolu got a concussion while playing rugby this fall, her mother told her she should join a science club instead. Asaolu is interested in a career in medicine.
“It’s really hard explaining that [rugby] is what I want to do, that this is what makes me happy,” she said. “‘Get your degree,’ that’s my mom’s entire goaI.”
Christina Moreland ’17 recalled avoiding telling her parents that the transition to college was difficult, as she felt they wouldn’t be able to relate.
“The nuances of how to be a college student were not something I was explaining… I would kind just leave things out and just be like, ‘Yeah, everything is great, I love everything. I’m doing really well,’” she said. “I think some of that comes from not being able to say, ‘Yeah, the first semester of college is hard’ and have them connect with that.”
Many students expressed concern that if they shared the full details of their Bowdoin experiences, their families would worry unnecessarily.
“When I cough, I cough away from the phone. So [my mom] isn’t super worried about me,” Chow said.
Other first-generation students found it easier to stop communicating their Bowdoin experience altogether.
Michelle Kruk ’16 said she rarely calls home.
“A lot of those conversations can be frustrating because it’s a lot of [my parents] dumping whatever is happening at home onto me and then not allowing me to dump what’s going on here to them, and even if I do dump that, they don’t understand it,” she said. “If I have to explain to you a thousand times what I’m majoring in or what I’m minoring in or what classes I’m taking, it just over time gets really repetitive and I don’t want to answer those questions any more.”
There is no such thing as a typical first-generation student. The label is not necessarily indicative of wealth, nor is it representative of race, hometown or socioeconomic status. In other words, the only thing first-generation students are guaranteed to have in common is the definition of the term itself: that neither parent holds a two or four year degree from a college or university.
Kenny Cortum ’16 is a first generation student from Iowa. He has blond hair, pale skin and wears rectangular glasses.
“It’s hard to be a first-generation student and look like I’m part of the one percent,” he explained. “I’ve actually had trouble connecting with other first-generation students here because I don’t look first-generation.”
Despite not looking like many of his first-gen peers, Cortum said his background affected his academic experience.
“One of my most distinct memories was when my neighbors across the hall would send their parents their essays to have them look over them, which I thought was kind of unfair,” he said. “I had to really look at these differences and find a way to adjust to make Bowdoin work for me the same way they’re making Bowdoin work with their parents. I had to do it without my parents.”
The academic transition to Bowdoin varies widely among first-generation students, as it does among all first years. Students who attended private schools or strong public high schools often felt well-prepared for college, while students who attended less privileged schools often found academics more difficult, especially in their first year.
"I came to college for academics, first and foremost, and I deserve the best out of my experience like anybody else," said Walker, whose public high school in the Bronx offered few advanced classes and was frequently subject to budget cuts. "I know I could do better, but I'm doing a lot with what I have so far. It's hard to be compared to students who've been challenged like this for years and this is my first time confronting stuff like this."
Walker believes her status as a first-generation student makes her time at the College even more valuable.
“My grades are everything right now,” she said. “To be honest, I don't have anything else. I don't have money. I don't have family with connections. All I have is my education.”
Shawn Bayrd ’19, who grew up in Brunswick, explained that he didn’t fully grasp the prestige of a Bowdoin education until after he got his acceptance letter. While he feels like he fits in academically, Bayrd said he still notices instances where he feels like an outsider because of his status as a first-gen student.
“Since my parents didn't go to college, they don't have this academic standpoint on the world… When I talk to people who have parents who went to get their PhDs or are high in their fields, I've noticed that the kids are also very aware of what's going on around them,” he said. “I haven't gotten the home aspect where we talk about what's going on in the world.”
Bayrd attended Brunswick High School and worked alongside his mom at Thorne Hall in his junior year of high school.
“It was awful. I hated Bowdoin kids because if you're not a student you don't get treated as well,” he said. “One of my jobs was to put the coffee pots in the machines and turn it on so it would filter through. And there was this whole crowd around the coffee thing waiting for the coffee and I was just standing there with the pots waiting for them to move and they were like, ‘Are you gonna make more coffee?’ I'm like, ‘Yes, I will if you fucking move.’”
While intellectual support is one privilege of being raised by college-educated parents, financial stability is another, more widely-recognized advantage. According to data collected by the National Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis there is a $26,700 median difference in yearly earnings between those with a high school diploma versus a bachelor's degree.
“Because my parents didn’t go to college, finances are always an issue,” said Zac Watson ’16. “So I actually moved in by myself. My parents weren’t here to help me move in. And that was kind of—it was very different. Everyone’s parents help them move in on the first day. And it was just me here. I had to go to the mail center, get all my boxes, move in, get to the Field House.”
Watson said he still feels different because of his financial status at times.
“It was the social aspect that I really noticed,” he said. “Friends want to go to Quebec for Fall Break or something, and it’s like, ‘I can’t do that. I support myself.’”
“People said ‘Oh yeah, we went to Europe for a trip or we went to somewhere like Hawaii,’’’ recalled Chow. “A lot of [first-generation students] can’t afford trips like that... Having us talk about our summers is like ‘I worked this summer.’”
Most first-generation students expressed that, while their first-generation status impacted their social life, it also didn’t preclude them from forming friendships with non-first-generation students.
“Despite seeing that there are a lot of differences, I can still be friends with all these other people with a lot of privilege,” said Chow. “I can still connect with them in ways and have a lot of fun with them.”
For many students, the first-gen label often takes a backseat to other, more salient aspects of their identity.
"It's been very hard for me to explain my first-gen experience because until last semester, actually, I haven't really had one," Walker explained. "My experience has always been curtained by being black. If anyone asked me what it was like [to be first-gen], I'd talk about what it was like to be black here."
“You don’t wear your first-generation identity on your sleeve, nobody can really tell. And so there’s many other transitional issues that students here face that are more physical, that I think are prioritized for students,” said Kruk. “Like I’m more concerned about being a woman of color than being first-gen, because that’s what impacts me first.”
For other students, national identity plays a role. Camille Farradas ’19 attended a competitive private high school in Miami where many students were of Cuban descent, like her. She said she sees her identity as a first-generation student as inextricably tied to her Cuban background, because college wasn’t an option for her parents in communist Cuba.
“Part of being Cuban in particular is that I couldn’t grow up where I was supposed to grow up,” she said. “Part of [going to college] is rebuilding our family from nothing.”
Given the diverse individual experiences of first-generation students, it can be difficult to provide resources to support the entire group. At the same time, first-generation students typically experience more difficulties than non-first-generation students. Nationally, the graduation rate for these students from private institutions is 70 percent, while only 57 percent who attend public institutions graduate. Data on the graduation rate of Bowdoin’s first-generation students was unavailable.
Bowdoin provides some programming attempts to support first-generation students by bringing them together at the first-generation multicultural retreat, which takes place every fall.
“It [is] really an opportunity to bring first-generation students and students of color off campus after they’ve been at Bowdoin for about a month and kind of get them a safe space off campus to talk about any issues they might have,” said Director for Multicultural Life Benjamin Harris.
He added that the retreat was also a good way to connect first years with upperclassmen role models.
“The first-generation multicultural retreat…was an amazing bonding opportunity,” said Simone Rumph ’19. “Whether it be first-gen, or having struggles with economy, or being multiracial, coming from different backgrounds. It’s just a bond that is there.”
At the same time, the retreat conflates the labels of first-generation and multicultural. And while some first-generation students find support through affinity groups like the African American Society (Af-Am) or the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), connecting with first-gen peers can be more difficult for students who are first-generation college students but are not a racial or ethnic minority.
Cortum recalls feeling isolated when he went on the retreat as a first year.
“There was only one other who was as pale as I was and I felt like we were kind of alienated at first,” he said.
Bowdoin also hosts a couple of dinners a semester aimed specifically at first-generation students. Learning to utilize these resources can be an adjustment too.
"As a first-gen, I think it’s very easy to say—for most of us—that throughout our lives we’ve been doing things on our own," Chow said. “So coming to college, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it’s okay to reach out for help. It’s okay to use resources around you.”
Though Chow’s parents are thousands of miles away, he managed to find support from connecting with upper class role models.
“People seem like they’re doing alright, but they’re also going through a lot. [For] me realizing, ‘Hey, you know, someone’s been through this,’” he said. “It’s okay to feel that way.”