The Collegian
Tuesday, May 28, 2024

First-generation students and the adversity they face

<p>President&nbsp;Ronald Crutcher greets a&nbsp;student during freshman move-in day.</p>

President Ronald Crutcher greets a student during freshman move-in day.

Who are they?

Where do they come from?

Where will they go?

Tony Da Lomba has that sort of wide-eyed grin you imagine when you think of America, the land where dreams come true, where the grass is always greener, where white picket fences stretch across the suburban jungle as far as the eye can see. Born in Brazil and raised in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he’s as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.

He speaks softly, but he carries a big secret. He isn’t a fortunate son. He’s American, but he might not even like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie or Chevrolet. He is a first-generation student — the first in his family to attend college — attending the University of Richmond, and his path to success has been marked more by adversity than privilege, his American experience less about dreams than about the obstacles that keep people from achieving them.

He’s not alone.

The prototypical Richmond student is often envisioned as the son or daughter of a lawyer or a doctor or a business mogul. The prototypical Richmond student is a trust-fund baby to the end, flaunting silver spoons — purchased from Tiffany, of course. The prototypical Richmond student has blonde, wavy hair that smells like the ocean and skin that’s been bronzed by a rendezvous with the sun on Martha’s Vineyard. The prototypical Richmond student wears salmon shorts and Brooks Brothers polos, the ones they would normally reserve for an outing on dad’s golf course. The prototypical Richmond student didn’t receive any financial aid. There is no need.

The prototypical Richmond student doesn’t exist.

Just ask Da Lomba, who is now a junior. His parents left Brazil seeking opportunity in the United States when he was five. Both are uneducated upholsterers. His mother has a high-school education, his father a second-grade one. They didn’t understand or support his aspirations. Some days, Da Lomba thought he’d be deported before he graduated high school, he said.

Ask Ashleigh Brock, a 2005 Richmond graduate who now works in career services. She was reared in a single-parent, low-income household. Her mother sacrificed what she could to ensure Brock would be unaware of her socioeconomic status. But when it came time to apply to Richmond, Brock said her mother was terrified — both by the cost and the thought of failing to provide her daughter with an education. Brock, too, lived in fear, of letting her mother down.

Ask Bal Artis, a senior who was raised in a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C., by his mother and stepfather. His biological father, a serial womanizer who has impregnated and abandoned multiple women, has never been a part of his life. When Artis was 12, he isolated himself because he was scared of the decisions being made by people he once considered his friends. He worked his way into Lincoln University, the nation’s first historically black college, where he was ostracized and accused of being a “queer lover.”

Ask April Hill, who, while not a Richmond graduate, represents the campus community as a biology professor. While her father was at war in Vietnam, she was in a car accident that killed her mother. She was 3 years old. She lived with her grandmother until age 4, when dad came home, but the war had taken its toll on him in the form of substance abuse. By the time she was 15 years old, she was living alone in a trailer that her grandparents had bought and for which her father paid the lot rental. Some days electricity didn’t work. Some days the water didn’t run, either.

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Even ask Ronald Crutcher, the president of the University of Richmond. An image from 1953, in which he stands before his fireplace, dressed formally, with a bow tie around his scrawny, 6-year-old neck — a trademark that still defines his style — belies his background. Though he was raised in a household that he called “lower middle-class,” neither of his parents was educated. His mother was a dollmaker and his father a military man. Both nonetheless told him from a young age that he would attend college. His father took him to visit schools such as Miami University of Ohio — which he would later attend — when he was in elementary school. Though Crutcher was not embarrassed by his family background as he was growing up, he did admit that he was embarrassed by the poor English his father spoke. “It was a proxy for not having an education,” he said. He later realized he was wrong to be ashamed, but it was a struggle that defined his early years.

Ask them if they’re prototypical Richmond students, and they’ll tell you there isn’t one. As they would attest, there’s not even a prototypical student or a prototypical American. Many, like them, had to work tirelessly to earn a chance at success. They had nothing to fall back on. They knew that failure to get an education would be a failure to rise from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. It would be the perpetuation of a cycle in which everyone from grandfather to granddaughter is uneducated. And they’re all poor.

“You’re the one who has to make it,” Brock said. “You’re the one who gets to go to college, so you’re the one who has to do everything. You’re taking your parents with you.”

For first-generation students, the college experience can be marked by a struggle to fit in and keep up with the students whose parents were college-educated and helped them through the application process and whose tutors helped them excel on the SATs.

“We often use it as an example in Common Ground for talking about privilege,” Lisa Miles, the associate director of Common Ground, said. “If you have sisters and brothers who went to college, you have someone to tell you about the SATs, about FAFSA. And you might have had a good guidance counselor. You were on the college path. It was this whole structure that was around you, and that you couldn’t avoid.”

Hill struggled in her first year at college — academically and socially. So did Brock. So did Da Lomba. So did Crutcher. Their typically under-resourced high schools could not adequately prepare them for college academics. The culture shock they encountered when confronting the wealth and privilege of their peers often kept them from engaging socially. Their parents weren’t always there for them. Some, like Da Lomba’s parents, simply dropped them off and never came back.

Hill can still recall her cluelessness as a college freshman. She said she was once convinced by an ITT Technical Institute commercial that she needed to learn a trade. She scheduled an appointment with a representative, who was confused.

“She said: ‘I’m not sure why you’re doing this. You’re a science major,’” Hill said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah but I think I need to go to ITT Tech, too.’”

The representative told her she didn’t need a trade, and Hill learned just how little she knew about college. She had no mentors to guide her. Her father was barely in her life and her grandmother, with whom she shares a close bond, could not help her. When she received a 27 percent on her first chemistry exam, she realized just how unprepared she was.

The first-generation students — past and present — didn’t tell stories of the wonderment of their first days. They reached back through the webs of their minds to access difficult memories that they might have been repressing. They didn’t preface those memories by talking about how much they enjoyed orientation. Instead, every student agreed that Richmond can be a difficult place for first-generation students — because of any combination of academic, social and emotional struggles. More than a few times, the students seemed to tear up.

Miles has been monitoring first-generation students’ progress and needs for years. Last year, after researching the practices of progressive universities, she started Spider Firsts, through which first-generation students can support one another. The group holds several dinners throughout the school year, during which older students mentor first-years and integrate new students into the campus community.

Miles held a welcome program at the beginning of September to bring the first-generation students together. Students socialized as former first-generation staff and faculty asked them about their initial experiences at the university. Artis, who stood by the cake in the back of the room, had an aura about him. He was the one student whom people just seemed to know. Miles singled him out as she gave a welcome speech. He was happy to be there. As he laughed, his cheeks scrunched up and pulled the whiskers of his goatee.

First-generation students admit that it’s tough to flaunt their backgrounds and tell the world they were disadvantaged. Some even said they wouldn’t disclose that information if they didn’t have to. Social stigmas about poverty and status seem to plague the thoughts of these students. Many shut themselves out.

“I never really mentioned it much before,” Da Lomba said. “In a social situation, it’s uncomfortable. There’s a lot of awkward tension that can come from it.”

First-generation students are so used to doing everything on their own, Brock said, that they have a proclivity to seclude themselves from the social scene. They blame themselves for academic failings and a dearth of preparation, sometimes devoting themselves obsessively to a fruitless pursuit of perfection. If not stopped, Miles said, these students cut themselves off altogether. Sometimes they transfer. Sometimes they drop out.

But they’re not all worried. Artis, for one, said he was more than happy to assert his place as a first-generation student. So was Brock. Hill even gave a keynote address at the Spider First kickoff event last year. And Crutcher, as the president of the university, said he was open about and proud of his background. First-generation students aren’t just Hester-Prynne-like figures, burdened with an inescapable mark. But some handle the designation better than others. Some, like Artis, Brock, Hill and Crutcher, take it as a source of pride.

“Someone once referred to first-gens as pioneers,” Miles said. “They’re leaving their families and setting off to do something that no one’s done.”

It’s an optimistic way of looking at it. As if this were the final scene of “The Searchers” and students like Da Lomba were John Wayne figures, riding into the sunset, trailblazers setting off to discover unknown territories, while mom and dad stand in the doorway watching their children disappearing in the distance, proud to see how far they’ve come and wondering where they’ll go.

But Miles also knows the dark truth, that groups like Spider Firsts were created because of the lack of recognition of first-generation students. Thirteen percent of the student body are first-generation students, but how many students here know what a first-generation student is? Crutcher said it would take some time for this community to understand.

As Miles and Brock said, first-generations are pushed to constantly consider the future — too much is at stake not to. Most of these students, presumably, will ascend from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Most will rear their children in a more comfortable environment than the one in which they grew up. But what does that mean? Will their children have the same drive, the same determination to achieve, when nothing is at stake? It’s a terrible question to have to ask, presupposing there may be some benefit from failure and a burden that comes from success, but first-generation students said consistently that it was something they had considered.

Artis said he didn’t fear for his children. Wealth, he said, is a construct, and his children will be pushed to work and excel as much as their father. He didn’t hesitate when asked. He had thought about it before.

Brock said she was proud to be able to give her children a more comfortable future. It’s a goal every generation strives toward, she said, and she will instill in her children a sense of empathy that will guide them through life.

Hill walks a fine line with her two children, between caring and giving them space to be their own people. She cannot allow herself to spoil them, she said, but she must love them unconditionally — a common theme echoed by Crutcher, among many others. Hill said her children must receive the parental affection she never knew.

The first-generation stories are difficult to hear, but inspiring. These students, staff and faculty members worked their way to success — or have at least put themselves in a good position. Rather than simply congratulating themselves, they look to others who have done the same. All of the first-generation students shared stories of inspiration.

Brock said she was most inspired by Crutcher. Miles said she was inspired by an immigrant family who worked to send their nine children to college. Artis said he looked up to his mother. He also said he admired a girl who raised a baby while in college and took the baby to class. Her bravery in breastfeeding during note-taking, Artis said, was an amazing act with great social significance.

But any discussion of first-generation students cannot end on an optimistic note. For every success story, for every inspiring figure, there is a reminder that for too many American students, going to college is a Sisyphean feat. As inspired as Miles is by the progress the university has made integrating these students more fully into the college experience, she’s still hurt to know that for a long time, first-generation students weren’t even recognized — by Richmond or by any other university.

Artis graduated high school with a student who was accepted by four or five Ivy League schools. It was the consummate American success story, a student rising from adversity and reaching tremendous heights. But he didn’t go to college. He couldn’t, because it wasn’t affordable, because no one gave him the financial aid he needed. He lost his chance at a dream. He was a first-generation student who never was.

First-generation identity maps onto other identities, Miles said. First-generations, she said, are often minorities. They usually come from low-income backgrounds. If any extensive progress is to be made, she said, the country needs to recognize that these students are plagued with multiple disadvantages, even if the first-gens themselves are hesitant to admit it.

Da Lomba recalled the application process and said there were schools that refused to grant financial aid based on his citizenship status — which, at the time, was pending. Another school rejected him because he was too poor. He said he was afraid that if he failed, it wouldn’t be because he wasn’t good enough. He thought failure had to be earned, but apparently not in America.

“We still have a long way, and I don’t just mean with first-gen students,” Hill said. “I mean we have a long way to go when we think about how to make an institution where every student thrives, and I don’t think every student thrives here or at any campus, because racism thrives. Classism is a dominant theme.”

To defeat prejudice, Hill said, administrators, staff and faculty need to recognize biases. They need to accommodate students who have been held back by systemic inequity. She said she was glad that Richmond had done so and was pleased to see the university devoting increased funding to resources for disadvantaged students.

Crutcher’s inaugural symposium focused on “America’s unmet promise,” to analyze the ways in which access to elite education was still bifurcated along lines of race and class. As Crutcher said, America’s unmet promise will not be fulfilled any time soon, and first-generations are informed enough to understand that.

The America that so many first-generation students see is not one of log cabins and apple pie and Norman Rockwell paintings. It isn’t a land of Jimmy Stewarts, Johnny Appleseeds or Huckleberry Finns. Sometimes, to these students, the American Dream seems a cruel illusion. Sometimes equality is a hollow prospect and bigotry an unavoidable curse. Is everything as it seems in the Promised Land? As Crutcher said, certainly not.

First-generation students know the media will continue to publicize the success stories, and they’re proud to see the ways in which hard-working dreamers have earned a chance at prosperity. But what about the hard-working dreamers who never had that chance? What about the first-generation students who never were — who never had the chance or who weren’t acknowledged by their school or who were lost in the cycle of poverty? What about them?

Who are they?

Where do they come from?

Where will they go?

Contact reporter Damian Hondares at

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