Given the levels of economic need among Baltimore’s City Public School students, many (if not most) are first-generation college goers.  First generation college students are the first in their families to go to college.  Being first-generation comes with a unique set of challenges – they’re more likely to be unfamiliar with the steps needed to get into college, the college culture, and more likely to have difficulties figuring out what it means to be a college student.

People with little knowledge of first-generation experience might just think this lack of familiarity can be dealt with simply by showing these students how to get around on campus, where to pay their tuition fees, and what classes to register for.  But that would be far too little.

To find out more about what these students might really need, Rachel Durham of BERC (RD) talked with Verlando Brown (VB).  Verlando grew up in west Baltimore, graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, and enrolled at Towson University as a first-generation student.  He graduated with a degree in Psychology and is completing his Master’s degree in Human Services Administration from University of Baltimore next month.

RD:  What was it like when you showed up on your first day at Towson University?

VB:  I was scared, because I had no idea what to expect. I had to figure things out on my own, but I knew it wasn’t going to be like high school. I was scared of failing my classes and that I’d get kicked out of school.  I had all these grants and scholarships where the condition was keeping a good GPA (around 2.8 or above).  It was a lot of pressure! I was scared I would disappoint myself and my family. They were very proud of me.  Coming from the neighborhood, if I failed, there was no coming back.

RD: Researchers who study this have said that first-generation students need to fit in quickly, or feel comfortable not fitting in.  Did you fit in?

VB:  Not my first day. It took me a while. As I went to class I was trying to adjust and figure out how to study, how to talk to my professors.  In class when the professor was lecturing, I was afraid the questions I asked would make me seem incompetent.

RD: Did it ever occur to you that the students you were around were taking a lot for granted, in terms of what was being expected of them? Did it seem easier for them?

VB: Yes, because I used to hear them say, “This is easy!” They just looked at a book or something and say they’d already memorized it, but it takes time for me when I read a page.  The sentences didn’t click right away, and I’d have to read over the sentences a bunch of times. I knew I was having to spend a lot more time than they were. Another thing that frustrated me was that when professors were teaching, they weren’t even looking at a book! So why did I have to read it over and over to understand?

RD:  Did you have a “guide” who showed you the college culture?

VB:  No, I had to learn everything by myself. It was very, very lonely.  But I went to a diversity retreat that Towson University had, and I made some friends and that’s how my support system started. I developed relationships with staff that helped me later, and I made more friends. It helped me to feel better about myself and that I could get through college knowing I was not alone.

RD:  The research says that first-generation students often report feeling like an “imposter.”  Did you experience that? How long did it take before you didn’t feel different (if ever)?

VB:  Yeah, I did [feel that way].  In the classroom, I’d see students who pretty much dominated the conversation. I’d think to myself, “How am I going to follow that?” There were times when I thought, maybe I’m not on that level.

RD: Researchers have a lot of suggestions about what first-generation students need, like explicit study skills, joining study groups, specialized academic advising, and so on. Looking back, was anything essential to your success?

VB:  Yes. The mentors I had on campus, mostly staff and a couple of students who were serious about helping me getting through Towson.  Also, I went to the academic achievement center and they were amazing, because they help you with tutoring, study skills, and writing skills. If I was going through some things they helped me with that, too. They weren’t counselors, but if I needed someone to talk to, they were there. They were my last resort.  They were like a family to me.  Another support was the SAGE program which stands for Student Achieve Goals through Education.  The staff there were also another amazing support.

RD: Something I find interesting is that first-generation students say that they must resist pressure from family and old friends to come back home before they finish college.  Did you experience that?

VB:  Nobody told me I should drop out, but for example like over the holidays, if I talked about something from class and I used words they didn’t understand, I’d stop the conversation because I’d think maybe they think I’m snotty or stuck up, because I’m in college.  I didn’t want people thinking that I think I’m better than them, even though all I wanted was a better life.  I was changing, but I didn’t want my family to think I forgot them or that I was stuck up. I was willing to remain humble, and even now I try to downplay ways I’ve changed.  It’s still a struggle. Even the way I dress, I don’t have my pants hanging down. Sometimes I get stares if I’m wearing a suit and walking through the neighborhood.

RD: What advice would you give a new first-generation student?

VB:  I’d say, make sure you surround yourself with people who are positive, and make sure you seek out getting involved in at least one student organization, because it will increase your network and build your confidence level.  And never be afraid to ask for help with classes.  You should get involved in study groups because that can boost your confidence and your support system, too. If you’re ever dealing with that imposter phenomenon, don’t be afraid to raise your hand and speak your piece, because you’re just as intelligent as the next person.  Know that you may come from a different background, but your experience can enlighten them as well as your professor.