Here’s an interesting story in the Boston Globe about poor students attending Ivy League schools and very often struggling with their new environment, not in the least because they are often the first in their families to attend college at all, and thus have little guidance from family and friends on how to navigate the academic surroundings. I found it interesting because their story is in many ways my story: I was the first of my family to go to college (indeed, I was the only one of my immediate family to finish high school), and I went to the University of Chicago, which is not an Ivy but is certainly an elite school (currently #4 in the US News “national university” ranking, tied with Columbia and Stanford). And I was poor when I went to school there.
That said, I had an advantage that many first generation college students don’t — for high school I attended a private boarding school (scholarship kid), which gave me four years to work out my class angst — and there was some — and also learn how to navigate issues of privilige, of which not the least was accepting the fact that I was starting the journey away from poverty, and the worldview it engenders, and toward privilege, and that worldview. I’ve said before that when one has been poor one never forgets what that’s like, and that remains true. But by the time I got to college, most of my really difficult battles on that score were settled. I was decently well assimilated into the elite world view.
And as it happens I think the elite world view — essentially, the belief that one of the people behind the levers of the world will be you — is not always a bad one to have. But it needs to be tempered by awareness of a world outside privilege, so one is not oblivious to the fact that the world outside your door is filled with people who don’t benefit from the same easy connection to power that you now have, thanks to networks and name brand recognition. This is where first-generation students at elite schools can make a difference. They can be a bridge between two worlds in a way few others can.
They have to make it through the transition first, however. And sometimes that’s hard.