*Essay adapted from a 2022 MCTE Spring Conference presentation

I have taught at the university level for over nine years. I’m the editor of Confluence (formerly CLArion), the annual newsletter of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I’m also an assistant editor of Split Rock Review, a not-for-profit publication that aims “to publish the finest literature and art that explore place, environment, and the relationship between humans and the natural world” (“Mission”). And yet, my dad is (present tense) the director of a grocery store. I see the wheels turning in students’ minds as they try to reconcile these truths. How did she get from there to here? Don’t professors beget professors?

I am an outlier: a first-generation college student who made it to the collegiate teaching ranks. For many students, my reality makes me more approachable, more recognizable, and more familiar, which tends to make them more comfortable interacting with me and more trusting in what I have to say. I get it. I didn’t see anyone like me when I was a student. I share my truth with students to show them a possibility, because without mentors who offered me a hand up the ladder, I would not be where I am today.

Let me emphasize: my hard work alone would not have gotten me here. There are too many things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Luckily, at every major fork in the road there has been someone helping to guide me.

However, before I illustrate my experiences and lessons they provide, I’d like to note that I am an able, white, heterosexual woman and come from a middle-class family. My extended family has lived in Minnesota for over one hundred years. Even as a female, first-generation student, I had privileges other first-generation students don’t have. So, my experience is simply that: mine. I won’t pretend to speak for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, disabled, or newly relocated students and the unique challenges they face.

Nevertheless, I hope that highlighting obstacles I faced can open the gate for others to share their experiences and for teachers to learn about opportunities to better work with those students, because according to the First-Gen Institute at the University of Minnesota, in 2022, 23.9% of the undergraduates at the Twin Cities campus are first-generation students (“First Generation at the U of M”). Nearly a quarter of the undergraduate population. If that trend holds across colleges in Minnesota, then in my classes of 25 students, six students are first-generation. If I’m teaching three classes a semester, that’s eighteen students who may need me to offer my hand to enhance their learning trajectory.

So, how can we help these students? Seeing things through their eyes is a start. I’ll lend you mine.

I grew up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a fairly rural city of fewer than 20,000 people. When I turned fifteen, I got a job at the grocery store so I could pay for a car when I turned sixteen. I’ve worked ever since. For those taking notes, that means I worked through college and graduate school. I couldn’t just focus on my classes.

My dad had farmers for parents, and he earned an associate’s degree at the local community college but has otherwise worked hard to climb ranks in the grocery business to get to where he is in his career.

My mom was raised by a sign painter and a laboratory technician. She took a few classes at the local community college but never graduated with a degree. She was mainly a stay-at-home mom.

My step-mom’s background is similar, with her parents working as a seamstress and truck driver, but she worked at the grocery store with my dad until about five years ago when she retired.

Despite my parents not earning a four-year degree, I never doubted that I’d go to college.  That’s likely because I was aware of savings accounts family had set up when I was a small child—a privilege, I recognize, and perhaps my first hand up.

Although, I don’t remember having a conversation with my parents about if I’d go, there were many about where I’d go. However, we weren’t considering what different programs offered and what advantages they’d give me. In fact, I didn’t tour any colleges until after I’d been accepted to them. Instead, our conversations circled around practicality: tuition at public vs. private colleges, scholarships, and the option of living at home and getting generals done at the local community college before transferring to finish my four-year degree. As we considered price points for each option, my dad pulled up a car loan website and plugged in numbers and interest rates to make sure I understood how much I’d owe when I graduated.

We also had to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which was a long and grueling process. Having to dig out tax returns and other financial documents antagonized my dad to no end, particularly when the FAFSA concluded what my dad suspected: we weren’t wealthy enough to not take out loans, but my parents made too much to qualify for grants.

I ended up going to a private college after being awarded a scholarship covering a large portion of my tuition and because they took all my College in the Schools (CIS) classes for credit without me needing to take the Advanced Placement (AP) tests. After running the numbers, my dad figured that I’d rack up just as much debt at a state school as I would at the private college with the scholarship. The CIS classes were the tipping point—when I started college, I had sophomore status based on the credits I’d already taken, and I could expect to graduate at least a semester early–financial advantages in the eyes of my family.

Nevertheless, what felt like every time I’d visit home, my dad would talk to me about what I was going to do with my English degree that would pay off my loans. Don’t get me wrong: my parents were glad I was getting a college degree. They just wanted to make sure I wasn’t digging a hole I couldn’t fill in.

My plan when I began college was to become a high school English teacher. I didn’t know what other options there were for English majors or about related fields like library science. I just knew I’d loved the Humanities English courses I’d taken in high school, and I was both skilled at and enjoyed reading and writing.

That trajectory changed when I got to college. My English literature classes and philosophy classes took the critical thought I’d loved about my high school classes and raised the caliber to thrilling proportions. THIS level of education was where I wanted to teach.

However, I didn’t know how to become an English professor, and neither did my parents. So, my dad reached out to my advisor, and I frequented her office hours with questions. Though she couldn’t tell my dad anything specifically about me due to Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restrictions, she didn’t brush him off because she recognized his genuine desire for information about what his daughter was getting into and my unease about how to move ahead with my education.

We learned I’d need to get a masters degree as well as a doctorate–at least six more years of school that I hadn’t planned on. She also provided a general day-in-the-life overview of what she did as a professor. Convinced it was what I wanted to do and I could figure it out, I made the minor switch from an English education major to an English literature major and looked forward to a stimulating career.

However, as a first-generation student, imposter syndrome quickly kicked in as I learned more about the influences of classic literature (most of which I had not yet read because I didn’t know the texts existed) and perceived that my classmates were all far better read than I was. I’d have read more in my spare time, but my schedule was filled with juggling the reading and homework I committed to for my classes, attending swimming practice, working at the pool for money to cover daily expenses, and trying to have a social life.

I did well in my courses, though. A professor recommended I make some minor revisions to one of my essays and then submit it for presentation at a conference. That seemed like high praise and a good opportunity, except I was too embarrassed to ask what a conference was, much less which conference to submit to or how to submit to said conference. I also suspected it cost money to attend them, and I didn’t have much to spare. So, I never acted on her recommendation.

Speaking of money, though I wanted to, especially after friends came back from May-term trips with fantastic stories to share, I didn’t study abroad due to the additional debt I’d have incurred. I also didn’t join Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honor society, as an undergraduate due to the membership fee. How to fit meetings into my calendar was another concern. Likewise, I didn’t work on the college newspaper or creative journal because of scheduling, though I regularly read and admired them.

In retrospect, I wish I’d made the time and figured how to cover costs for some of those activities, perhaps by leaving the swimming team, but I didn’t know then about the value of joining student groups and clubs, studying abroad, internships, job shadowing, faculty-assisted student research, independent studies, discounted professional memberships for students, and all the rest, to build a competitive resume. Most adults I knew had simply gotten an entry-level job and worked their way up. They hadn’t needed extensive credentials to be hired.

Another point of fascination and discomfort for me was the opportunity to interact with visiting authors. The college hosted National Book Award winners and / or finalists after they were announced each year and regularly invited authors to speak on campus. I sat enthralled in the audience as Maxine Hong Kingston, Patricia McCormick, Jim Shepherd, Colum McCann, Nikky Finney, Stella Pope Duarte, and others read from their books. While growing up, I hadn’t known about the opportunity to attend readings or meet authors. So, although I loved books, my imposter syndrome kicked into high gear when I stood in line to have my copies signed by their authors. What was I supposed to say to them? I was from nowhere they’d ever heard of, they knew how good their book was, and I hadn’t written anything remarkable yet.

Interacting with visiting authors wasn’t the only time I struggled to know what to say. I also struggled at home to share what I was learning. My political viewpoint morphed in college due to gaining a broader and more in-depth knowledge of issues. Having friends who were members of the Campus Republicans and Campus Democrats and who regularly sparred verbally with each other helped me see the gray areas between them. No longer was I a member of the echo chamber at home, but I didn’t know how to make a new sound in the din.

My religion and philosophy classes additionally pushed up against familial beliefs and made me reconsider where I stood. I didn’t tell my parents about reading Nietzsche and thinking he made some fair points. I also didn’t tell my parents about comparing the Bible and the Koran and observing the similarities at their cores–a practice that made me question if different religions aren’t simply a way for those core beliefs to reach different people (not exactly the message I got at church).

I’ve always loved learning and intend to be a lifelong learner, but the more I know, the harder it can be to navigate cognitive dissonance with the truth accepted in my home culture and the truth accepted in my growing intellectual framework.

At the start of my third year of college, I deduced that I could graduate that spring, saving myself the expenses of another semester of classes. My professors encouraged me to not graduate early and to instead use the time to take extra classes, but they didn’t have my dad regularly checking in with them about paying off loans and calculating interest. Unlike me, they hadn’t been working forty hours at the grocery store and then crossing town to teach swimming lessons on weeknights before picking up shifts at the pool on the weekends each summer. Home culture won that battle.

But my expanding education had more to share with this first-generation student before graduation. My advisor taking a sabbatical created some detours that third year of college. I was reassigned to another professor in the English department–one I was familiar with but had never taken a class from. That fall, she asked me to come to her office to talk about my post-graduation plans. She wasn’t satisfied with my answer that I planned to go to graduate school to get my masters and PhD in English literature–that I wanted to be a college professor.

She asked me to paint her a picture of what I wanted my life to look like in five to ten years. Where did I want to live: a house? An apartment? A small town? A big city? The Midwest? The coasts? Did I want to get married? Have a family? Have pets? How active did I want to be in my community? How much did I want to work each week? Did I want to do my own writing? What kind of writing?

Once I’d described what I wanted in my future, she said, “I don’t think you should get a masters and PhD. I think you should get an MFA.”

I thought, What the hell is an MFA?

She proceeded to give me an overview of the degree, which seemed to be too good to be true: I could be done with graduate school in a little as two years AND I’d be qualified to teach at the university level AND I’d get to study creative writing while still analyzing literature. My mind tried to process the directions she was giving me: Why hadn’t I heard about this before?

The advisor noted that two professors at the college had an MFA; she recommended I talk to them about their experience and try to get into a creative writing class before I graduated. Head spinning with possibilities, I went back to my rental house and called my dad to tell him about the rerouting I intended to do.

Thank goodness my interim advisor asked hard questions, when she easily could have let me follow what I thought was the right path. If she was as thorough with all her advisees as she was with me, I hope she was recognized for the gift she gave. Ten years after that conversation (some minor details aside), I was living the picture I had painted for her.

That picture didn’t magically manifest itself, though. I needed other people to give me a hand up the ladder. One person who reached out was one of the two professors with an MFA. I hadn’t taken any creative writing courses yet (despite my interest in them) because they weren’t essential to my graduation. After talking with me about my situation and MFAs (in particular, stressing they weren’t a surefire way to teach at a college–I was happy to naïvely overlook that note of caution), he asked me for a five-page writing sample.

I went home and surprised myself by writing ten pages. After reading those pages, he let me register for his advanced creative nonfiction class in the spring despite me not previously taking any foundational creative writing classes and not particularly knowing what creative nonfiction was. I just knew I liked writing about what I knew.

He also recommended MFA programs for me to apply to and made some connections for me to learn more about them. From there, I began plugging away at applications. I took the general GRE with fair success after little preparation. I figured it was like the ACT, and I either knew the material or I didn’t. Last minute cramming wouldn’t help.

With that approach to standardized testing, the GRE Literature in English exam blindsided me. I left that exam feeling imposter syndrome to the 100th power. Now, I understood why classmates had bought study books and made flash cards and pored over them for weeks leading up to the test.

Luckily, the program I ended up attending didn’t require GRE in literature for admission, but it made the $150 to take it a waste of grocery money for me. Application fees, averaging $50 a pop, also quickly ate into my checking account, so I tried to work more hours, but that meant less study time.

 Meanwhile, my car got a flat tire, and I had to call my dad to ask for money. He helped without hesitation, but it hurt my pride to ask when I was trying to be an independent adult who covered living expenses by herself.

Application requirements aside, I still didn’t know how to evaluate programs to determine if their faculty, student body, or classes, were a good fit for me, so I once again chose a school based on cost, though location was also factored in. Of consideration: two of the schools were on the coasts, my family had recently moved to Kansas from Minnesota, my middle sister planned to complete her undergraduate degree at one of the Midwestern schools I’d applied at for an MFA, and that same school would be near the boyfriend I was committed to. The school with ties to love won (it also happened to be the cheapest), and I later ended up marrying that boyfriend, so I think it was the right choice, but I do wonder about the possibilities additional guidance may have created for me.

When I decided on a graduate school, I found out it was too late to apply for a teaching assistant position my first year. I also had to individually contact professors to request admission to register for classes because I’d had to send supplemental application materials to be processed after the deadline. Cue the imposter syndrome as my baseline for starting graduate school.

Thankfully, there were many people in the program who reached for my hand to assist me, as well as features to the program that helped scaffold students to be successful.

When I got a teaching assistantship my second year of graduate school, I was also required to take a course about teaching writing. Since my only teaching credentials at that time were swimming lessons, I sponged up all the advice I could get and used the assignments as a testing ground for what I’d later put in front of students—actions stemming from both my yearning to be a quality teacher and my innate desire to avoid being called out as a fraud. I had to fake confidence many days that first year of teaching, but the highs of the experience made me certain of my career path.

Another beneficial feature was the certificate in publishing offered via New Rivers Press, conveniently located on campus. Through two courses, students learned about editing and the publishing industry, toured presses in the Twin Cities, and worked on a team to edit a manuscript and create marketing materials for the book. Outside of the classes, students could also intern with the press or volunteer to read manuscripts submitted for the annual contest.

It’s not a stretch to say taking those classes blew my mind. I had no idea there were book publishers in Minnesota–aren’t they all out east on the coast? Likewise, being responsible for polishing an author’s manuscript before publication was a crucible that gave me new authority even as I worried about making a horrible mistake. Certainly, the managing editor / course teacher oversaw what students did, but her trust in us laid the foundation for our confidence in ourselves. The stakes were high, and I’d like to think we rose to meet them.

In other moments, I needed help reaching the bar as a first-generation student. I was embarrassed for myself when I found out that members of my cohort had already published some of their writing prior to entering the program–I only had questions about that process. There must have been others like me, though, because at least one professor walked the whole class through where and how to submit one’s writing before requiring us to submit our work to a few publications as part of the learning process–regarding both submissions and rejections.

Likewise, professors alerted students to conferences we could attend and present at. When our proposals were accepted, they helped us prepare and would often sit in on our session for support. A highlight was presenting at the annual Sigma Tau Delta conference in Portland, Oregon after friends in the program finally convinced me to join the English honor society and the campus group raised funds to cover nearly all of the trip.

Other professors directly reached out to help me as I navigated through graduate school.

Nonfiction workshops were only offered in the spring, and in my final fall semester, three friends and I wanted to keep ourselves accountable and get more feedback in preparation for our thesis, so we organized an independent study with an individual forty-page portfolio due at the end of the semester to the professor overseeing us. To say I made the most of that independent study may be putting it lightly. I gave the professor eighty pages and told her I understood if she couldn’t or wouldn’t give feedback on the extra pages. She graciously did, and much of the feedback was crucial to improving my thesis.

In my final year of graduate school, I also searched weekly for teaching jobs in Minnesota, though I first had to learn where to look, and applied to any I was qualified for. Any openings that professors shared with students, I also applied to. (Of course I did–my dad’s question of how I’d pay for my loans was ingrained in my mind.) And with those applications, I needed letters of recommendation which I apologized my way into requesting, not wanting to be a bother or a waste of their time. I remain appreciative of the grace of my professors for writing the letters and sending them to each place requiring the document for my application.

I received exactly one interview request the summer following graduation, and I took the job when they offered it three weeks before classes started. I conceded my undergraduate creative writing professor may have had a point about MFAs.

I’d say the rest is history, but that’s not true. I am still a first-generation student.

Only with friends’ and colleagues’ encouragement and support (including university funding) did I join, create, and head committees; teach new-to-me classes I was passionate about; attend and present at conferences; submit my work for scholarly publication, and undertake supplementary career opportunities.

I joined the staff of Split Rock Review only because the editor was one of my colleagues, and she asked if I’d be interested in volunteering to help screen submissions. Since I never worked on one of the creative, student-run publications in college or graduate school, I figured this was my best bet at getting some of that experience. It also helped that she asked me directly to join the team. In school, I could pass on involvement because no one expected me to do it–I was an imposter, remember? Being asked meant I had to prove I could do it. Over seven years later, I now additionally contribute book reviews and conduct author interviews for the publication. I can easily say working with Split Rock Review is one of my favorite projects.

It was also a colleague’s recommendation that I take over editing CLArion (now Confluence) when the former editor left the university. Once again, I felt compelled to take on the role and probably wouldn’t have done so without other people asking me to. As with Split Rock Review, I’ve not only taken on the expected responsibilities, but I’ve also gone beyond them. Inspired by my courses with New Rivers Press in graduate school, I created an intern position for the 2021-2022 issue of Confluence to give a student background knowledge and firsthand experience creating a newsletter that goes out to over 10,000 people.

I’d like to think the domino effect of paying it forward is something we can all do.

Below are some actions I’ve taken to enhance first-generation students’ experience in my classroom. Actually, these initiatives help all students. Most are not groundbreaking, and some are built into my job, but others I remind myself to do.

  • Telling students to give themselves a blank slate at the start of the semester. They don’t need to carry any baggage about what they or other people have told them about their writing. Unless they’ve taken a previous class from me, I know nothing about their writing. They should fully believe they can astound me with how strong their writing is.
  • Asking students what questions they have instead of if they have any questions to promote the idea that they should have questions and should not be embarrassed to ask them. With this, I emphasize that I’m a resource–they should make the most of being in my class.
  • Delineating ways students can be active class citizens (as opposed to “participating” in class, which is often assumed to be limited to asking / answering questions). In short, some methods include:
    • Demonstrating a skill
    • Helping a classmate complete a task
    • Using resources on campus
    • Taking meaningful notes
    • Making a connection between course content and life outside the classroom
    • Sharing an insight
    • Respectfully challenging an idea
    • Presenting a personal writing malfunction to collectively figure out a solution
  • Guiding independent studies to help students deeply investigate topics they’re curious / passionate about.
  • Assigning students practical writing scenarios in which to practice their writing.
  • Inviting writers, editors, and publishers to speak with students and answer their questions to broaden students’ knowledge and help them network.
  • Offering extra credit to students who attend an event with a connection to class topics and write a reflection about their experience. The goal is for students to encounter ideas they would not otherwise interact with, perhaps pushing them in a new direction, and reward them for doing so.
    • To avoid barriers for students I make sure the events are free and on campus / virtual.
  • Emailing students when they disappear from class–there’s usually a good reason, and they were too anxious to contact me about it, so contacting them breaks the tension. This conversation can also allow me to connect them with resources on campus that they may not know about.
  • Recommending specific publications for students to submit their work to (both academic and creative) and guiding them through that process. I try to connect them with on campus and local publications first to give them a better chance of success.
  • Informing students about the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program–what it is, why they should participate, how to apply.
  • Elucidating how to conduct research.
  • Posting scholarship opportunities and how to apply for them.
  • Sharing titles of books I’m reading, recommending books, and physically bringing in books to class for students to peruse. I also note how I find books: GoodReads.com, magazines, bibliographies of books, personal recommendations, etc. and encourage students to share their recommendations with the class.
  • Holding individual and group conferences to work with students one-on-one regarding their writing and help them get more comfortable talking with faculty.
  • Holding office hours–I explicitly tell students they should use my office hours: to get help regarding class or other matters, to build a relationship with me, to ask a question, to converse about a topic, etc.
    • I emphasize: they are not bugging me. I am literally sitting at my desk waiting for them. Also, if my office hours don’t work for them or if it would be easier to attend virtually, then I’m happy to make those arrangements.
    • At the end of a course, I tell students my door remains open to them, and I hope they’ll stay in contact.
  • Promoting lifelong learning.
    • Students see me at many of the extra credit events I share with them.
    • I acknowledge when I don’t know something but will find the answer.
    • I thank them when they teach me something new.
    • I tell them part of the reason I’m a teacher is because I want to keep learning.
  • Conducting frank discussions.
    • My email signature notes I’m a first-generation student.
    • Students get to ask me questions on the first day of class to get to know me.
      • Many of these questions are common icebreakers: Do I have a pet? Yes, a dog. What’s her name? Zelda. After the video game? Yes, and Zelda Fitzgerald.
      • However, a student once asked about my greatest fear. I was honest and said dying young, since my mom died when I was eight. That student later reflected that my response helped them feel more comfortable in class as someone who had also lost a parent.
  • Offering writing advice of what has / hasn’t worked for me.
    • I assert that there is not one perfect formula to the writing process.
    • Students are particularly receptive during discussions of applications (job searching, resume building, student memberships, etc.).
      • Their eyes often get wide when I share a poster my alma mater created after I graduated. The poster is filled with tiny text noting the hundreds of different careers English major alumni now hold.
  • Writing letters of recommendation, but also telling students ahead of time that they can ask me to write them and providing other tips.
    • I point out that I need to have a relationship with them to be able to write an effective letter.
    • I also note that I might say “No” if they ask me and I don’t know them well enough.
    • When they ask me to write a letter, I request they send me a link to where they’re applying, their resume, a writing sample (to refresh my memory of their work), and the deadline for the letter.
      • I’ve also started to check that I know their pronouns and ask if there’s anything they want me to focus on in my letter–a point of emphasis or something they couldn’t adequately address in their materials.

Overall, the goal is to make connections for students–to resources and opportunities and people, but also to knowledge and background information about why things are the way they are or how things are done. I try not to assume students know things and instead remember: they don’t know what they don’t know.

As much as I might hope to be, I would never expect to be the connecting link needed for every student I encounter, but it means everything to me that the assignments, discussions, recommendations, suggestions, and extra credit opportunities have been the critical link that some of my students have needed to determine what was right for them moving forward.

Some questions to consider:

  • If you were a first-generation college student, what challenges did you face? What resources did you wish for?
  • If you weren’t a first-generation college student, what advantages did you have? How could equity have been created for all students?
  • What opportunities and resources can we share with students to help them advance their education and experience?
    • What background information and/or support may we need to give them?
  • How do we help students know what they don’t know?
  • How do we help students negotiate their home knowledge/customs and their college knowledge/customs?
  • How do we best ask questions that help us provide the resources and guidance first-generation college students need?
  • How can resources offered to first-generation students enhance all students’ experiences in our classrooms?

I don’t have all the answers or recommendations to help every student, and I think resources at an institutional level are another necessary conversation, but I believe the more that we teachers think about first-generation students and understand their needs, the better we can work with them and help them get to where they need and want to go.

Thanks to the people listed below for offering me a hand up.

  • Mr. Jeremy Corey-Gruenes
  • Dr. Dawn Duncan
  • Dr. Joan Kopperud
  • Professor W. Scott Olsen
  • Dr. Thom Tammaro
  • Professor Liz Kisacky-Severn
  • Dr. Crystal Gibbins
  • Dr. Elizabethada Wright
  • Dr. David Beard
  • Dr. Burke Scarbrough
  • Dr. Karen Babine

Works Cited

“First Generation at the U of M.” University of Minnesota, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 2023, https://firstgen.umn.edu/data

“Mission.” Split Rock Review, 2023, https://www.splitrockreview.org/mission

Learn more about the author on our 2023 Contributors page.

One thought on “Offering a Hand Up: Insights and Aid for First-Generation Students by Whitney Jacobson

  1. What a great read! I love hearing about your experiences teaching and boy is it true that we really don’t know what we don’t know! We also can’t assume others know the same things we do, and a helping hand or some good advice can truly be life changing.

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