Being on the other side of the fence at a university

Recently there was a thread on Twitter asking first generation low income faculty to share their experiences so people could see just how many #FGLI faculty exist. Historically, higher education has been the territory of upper class (especially white) families (mainly men). There are some unique experiences that #FGLI faculty experience that others may not even realize exist.

And while grad school is meant to prepare you for a future as a professional in your respective field, it’s hard to prepare students for every possible bump in the road, especially when those students don’t have family to turn to for advice in navigating the academic world or the experience of watching mom or dad navigate it themselves. Upon starting my new position as Assistant Professor at an R1 institution I felt prepared in all the right areas – I’ve written grants, I’ve published in international journals, I’ve presented at many conferences, and I’ve taught several classes to a wide range of students. The one thing I was not prepared for was navigating the cognitive dissonance of being on the other side of the fence.

I turn 31 this week (tomorrow actually). That means I’m in the same generation as some of the graduate students in my department. In fact, some graduate students, and non-traditional undergraduates, are the same age as me or older. I don’t look old enough to automatically be assumed as faculty. Throw in my preference for carrying a backpack over a laptop bag (take care of your shoulders, people!) and there isn’t much separating me from the students I’m supposed to be teaching and mentoring. Last week a student asked me if I was a chemistry major because of a tattoo on my arm. I was a chemistry minor….over a decade ago when I was an undergraduate. This experience may be commonplace for any young graduate entering the faculty world. I think what sets #FGLI faculty apart is the response.

For example, this past weekend was student move-in, so restaurants, grocery stores, and the city in general has been engulfed by college students (I say engulfed affectionately seeing as they are the only reason I have the perfect job that I have). I witnessed one particular interaction the other day that struck me. To most people it was just a group of young girls eating pizza together at a restaurant. I, on the other hand, was flooded with contradicting emotions that I’ve had to take a few days to process.

Being a #FGLI, I was also not starting my college journey with any kind of monetary help from my parents, let alone any knowledge as to how college “worked”. To lessen the amount of loans I’d have to take out for school I decided to stay close to home and go to community college, transferring later. I also worked two jobs throughout undergrad to cover rent, my car payment, insurance etc. I think this situation is probably common for anyone entering college from a low-income background.

These circumstances meant that I never lived in a dorm. I didn’t do any of the first week activities that many new college students participate in. Most of my money went to paying bills. I had my group of friends I had already cultivated and was in a serious relationship. When I transferred to an out-of-state school (mainly to get away from my family), I went with my live-in boyfriend. I made some friends but most were work friends or already had their own group of close-knit friends they had made in the dorms. I convinced myself that I didn’t want those experiences.

Years ago, while I was in school, I carried a sense of resentment towards these other students. The ones who didn’t have to worry about bills and had meal plans paid for by their parents and could spend nights being care free doing whatever they wanted. At the same time, I spent my fair share of nights partying and having an insanely good time with amazing people. Really, I had no reason to be resentful. The choice to stay in my hometown and pay for community college out of pocket was mine (P.S. I still have a ton of student debt). Regardless, it was already there and has taken a long time to process.

I’ve already written a lot about my experiences in grad school and my continuous journey of self-exploration and change. Most of this change has happened since finishing my Ph.D. and all of it has happened since leaving undergrad. Seeing these girls at the table next to us the other day laughing and sharing pizza (amazing pizza, by the way) was the first time I’d really been able to observe the very situation that many years ago would have brought out some ugly resentment. It has since morphed into a slight sense of fond longing mixed with intense gratitude for how my life has played out so far, especially considering the circumstances I went through to get here.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from two years of writing for Feminist Forester it’s that these feelings and experiences I used to think were unique to me are actually much more universal than I ever expected. My advice to those in similar situations? Acknowledge and embrace that mixed bag. Use it to motivate you. And probably most importantly, find your niche on your new campus. For those of us who have spent the majority of our lives in education, it can be a weird turn of events to suddenly be on the other side of things, especially when your first go-round wasn’t what you wanted or expected it should be. Just like you had to find your place on campus 8, 10, or 20 years ago you’ll have to do it again. Use that knowledgeable support system you’ve built and go get em.

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