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Being Blue-Collar at a White-Collar Institution

By Jordan R. Robbins
Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

What some Harvard students don’t know is that going to college was never the only clear option for some of their first-generation, low-income peers.

The idea of “real work” is passed down within the family, which forces FGLI students to reconcile the premise of educational mobility with family values. Some first-generation college students come from families that would never define pursuing a post-secondary education as “work.” Instead, the mindset of starting from the bottom and working to the top is instilled as the most valid form of both social and economic mobility.

Before deciding on Harvard, I frequently asked myself if college, in general, would be the right fit for me. As an FGLI student, I saw some of my family members find sustainability in jobs that did not require a degree as other family members, like my mom, struggled to keep their heads above financial waters. Some thrived on this exact mindset of trying to work their way up from a lower position over several decades, regardless of their academic credentials, while others did not.

In light of the current skilled labor shortage, avoiding college debt and going into a skilled job might be more practical. First-generation students have been found to graduate with greater debt and earn less post-grad than their non-first-generation peers. Certainly, FGLI students at Harvard do not have to worry about debt to the same extent as most other college students, thanks to the University’s financial aid promise of meeting all demonstrated need. But they do still face the likelihood that they will make less than their non-first-generation peers — not to mention incur a wide range of social costs.

The inequalities are impervious, even within supposedly equalizing higher education institutions. FGLI students are compelled to ask, “Is college worth it?”

FGLI students frequently battle the feeling that they don’t belong at higher education institutions. Being around students who do not come from blue-collar backgrounds can be debilitating. A 2007 study by the University of Ontario found that first-generation students will leave university, even if in good academic standing, simply due to not fitting in or being able to relate to other students. The sad fact of blue-collar students attending white-collar institutions is that they will almost inevitably feel out of place.

While my dad was building houses, another student’s dad was buying his second vacation home. While my mom was driving a school bus, another student’s mom was driving her to campus in a Mercedes. While none of my family has stepped foot onto Harvard’s campus, other students’ families have visited countless times. While most students’ families could help them move in, mine was unable to drive our clunker across the country nor afford plane tickets.

Certain resources cannot be supplemented by the University, even with the substantial Harvard financial aid package. While some FGLI family members might be supportive, they will rarely understand why it might take an FGLI student so long to achieve his or her desired profession, or the mental stamina needed to be a college student 24/7. As a result, FGLI students must navigate the college world on their own.

In many cases, FGLI students were never equipped with the tools to navigate academia. College was always a goal for which students like myself had to reach without help. I could never go to my mom to ask about a math problem in high school, and I definitely could never ask her for guidance in college now.

My parents are not equipped with the experiences to help guide me through my current circumstances. It is not necessarily something I miss because I never had it to begin with; however, it is something I wish I had, especially having seen peers who have support systems at home. Ultimately, the lack of a parenting presence in academics strengthened my intrinsic motivation to tackle obstacles and struggle through learning difficult topics.

Harvard is a different world. I am moving further away from my roots, supplanting myself in the University setting — a setting not understood by my family. I live with the appreciative understanding that I will have opportunities to explore places that my family was never able to, constantly juxtaposed with the “what-ifs” of where I would be if I would have picked up a trade or apprenticeship at home and how integral my family would be in that journey.

I still feel an otherness at university, but know my time here is simultaneously creating a different strain of otherness at home. FGLI students like myself are left ambivalent, paving our road forward while trying to ration how to incorporate our families into the roadtrip. We are moving forward in our pursuits but somehow feel like we are leaving parts of ourselves and our family behind.

Jordan R. Robbins, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Leverett House. His column “What Some Harvard Students Don't Know …” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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