In her interviews with first-generation doctoral students nationwide, four themes have emerged. The first she calls “breaking the chain,” when these students make the decision to separate from their past, moving beyond their socioeconomic or gender bias barriers.
Katrina, a doctoral student in education, told Gardner about her parents’ expectations that it would be her older brother who would pursue college. “Their perspective was that he was a man and he would have to support a family and I, on the other hand, would get married and be supported,” the student said.
Another talked of breaking the chain by, “looking at how hard my parents had struggled for such a long time. We’re talking basic, entry-level, labor-intensive-type positions that both of them held during their lives. I didn’t want to do that.”
A second theme among the students is what Gardner characterizes as “knowing the rules.” Even those students who wanted to didn’t know how to access the higher education system and then, when they did, they didn’t know how to navigate it.
“I didn’t know you could go to school without football. That line of thinking was not in my world of knowledge and understanding,” Ryan, a doctoral student in social work, explained.
First-generation doctoral students talked about “having to study twice as hard to learn how to maneuver in and out of the system, how to work the system, how to learn.”
“(Peers’) parents are educated and have degrees so they kind of know what the system is and how to work it and how to apply that directly to what was expected of them,” said Kelly, a doctoral student in interdisciplinary studies. “For me, I kind of have to feel my way around and learn as I go.”
The third and perhaps most intriguing theme that emerged is what Gardner calls “living in two worlds.” She found first-generation doctoral students feeling alienated in academia and the world of their upbringing. Theirs is a dual culture.
“They have no respect for what I’m doing,” Melanie, a doctoral student in chemistry, told Gardner. “They say, ‘You need to get a job and get out of college.’”
Miles, a doctoral student in English, said: “I see where I am going and where I want to end up. I have literally cut off all connections to those people back home because those people are still doing those things that I cannot be associated with.”
Brandy talked about being in a doctoral program, but not belonging in terms of class, gender and race — symptoms of what psychologists call the imposter phenomenon. “Everything is saying that I don’t belong,” she said. “I think if I had been second-generation, I wouldn’t have any doubts.”
The hardest part, said Claire, a doctoral student in English, is the self-doubt, “thinking that someone is going to find out that I really shouldn’t be here, even though it is something that I have worked so hard for. I have to remind myself constantly that I have a right to be here.”
And then there’s the disconnect with family — from feeling relatives don’t understand the educational pursuits to the sense that the students, in essence, can’t go home again.
“Most of my family would have preferred if I had gone to college that I would’ve gotten something like an accounting degree, something practical, something that you could (use to) go get a job. They really didn’t understand it, and the more I went to school, the more it just confused the hell out of them,” said Amy, a doctoral student in history.
Jan, a doctoral student in political science, talked about the sense of separation and loss: “You can’t really act educated when you go home, you know, because they think you are uppity. I actually had a couple of my cousins tell me that I don’t even talk the same.”