OPINION: Life as a first-generation student at UP

By Kendra Dickey | November 6, 2019 12:41pm
Kendra Dickey, FGEN student and junior nursing major. Photo courtesy of Kendra Dickey.

I was in for a shock when I arrived on the UP campus for move-in day my freshman year. I knew I would face unique struggles as a first-generation (FGEN) student at a private Catholic university, but nobody told me explicitly what kind of experiences I would be in for. I'm here to tell you exactly the types of struggles first-generation students face on this campus — namely, financial ones.

I grew up in a small town in a working-class family and always did without the "finer things" —  no extravagant traveling, only secondhand or clearance section clothing, and I never even owned a Hydroflask (gasp) until one was gifted to me because let's be honest, who pays $40 for a water bottle? Not my family. 

Don't get me wrong — I had privileges. I got a car at age 16, a 2001 Ford Taurus that was reliable most days. I had an iPhone, always two generations behind. I was a competitive dancer ,and my parents were able to keep me in dance classes, which weren't exactly cheap. Essentially, I was raised to know when and where to cut costs so that I could afford the necessities. I learned at an early age what sort of costs to anticipate and how to save for them.

I decided to get a college degree to give myself a better life and set myself up financially for the future. My parents did the best with what they had, and I had a good childhood, but I knew I wanted more for myself. I never felt different until I came to UP and looked around at all my peers who came from families of lawyers, doctors and other white-collar professionals. I began making friends with people whose backgrounds looked so foreign to me. You're telling me your car isn't 15 years old? You go out clothes shopping for fun? You want us all to go out to dinner just because it's the weekend? You spent HOW much on concert tickets? 

All of a sudden it became clear to me that I didn't quite fit in the way I expected. Maybe it was just my insecurity, but I felt like a spectacle to my friends; like I was some odd anomaly they were all trying to understand. I felt embarrassed of my status as an FGEN student and tried to ignore it and fit in. As much as I tried to just go with the flow and not draw attention to myself, there's no easy or low-key way to admit to your friends that you can't go somewhere or do something with them because you simply can't afford it. I've got student loan bills to pay, gas to buy and doctor's appointments to go to. It never gets easier or less awkward explaining this to people.

Despite all this, it is only half the story of what it means to be FGEN. Yes, I struggle financially, but I am the first in my family to pursue a college degree so that my family does not have to struggle. It is not easy to choose to go to college when nobody in your family knows how any of it works. For a long time, going to college felt selfish to me. It's hard to explain why, but I felt like my family was suffering because of it. But I now realize that my present struggle is leading to a bright future where I won't have to worry so much and hopefully neither will my family. With National FGEN Day coming up on Nov. 8, I've never felt so proud of who I am, and I hope you will join me in recognizing the amazing hard work of the FGEN community on the UP campus!

Kendra Dickey is a junior nursing major. She can be reached at dickeyk21@up.edu