For Bright Distinguished Professor of American History Cate Denial, going to college as a first generation student seemed like the only option. As a college student, she felt lost and didn’t have anyone to turn to when looking for guidance.
“It was terrifying, I felt like everybody else knew what they were doing and I didn’t. I knew I was smart but I didn’t know how to do college,” she said.
Denial loved to read and felt that reading books and talking about them was the one hobby she knew for a fact that she was good at. She wanted to learn in college and gain the experience her parents didn’t, but when it came to having support, she didn’t have anywhere to turn to.
“I was thrown back on my own resources a lot. My parents helped out when and where they could, but they didn’t have the resources,” she said.
Denial also had difficulty talking to them about the issues she was having in a higher education setting.
“Because they hadn’t gone to college, it was hard to explain what the problems were and I didn’t know at the time they were problems common for the people going to college for the first time, I just thought I was screwing up and didn’t want to admit that to them,” Denial said.
Knox College has a high number of first-generation students on campus. Though senior Keara Crook was also the first in her family to go to college, she felt like she could tell her parents everything despite them not necessarily having the same experiences that she had. However, Crook also had to rely on her own resources during her time at Knox.
“There’s always been this joke in my family that I’m going to be the one to put my parents in a nursing home. . . My dad isn’t going to be able to provide for us forever because he’s getting older and my mom is disabled, so I’m going to have to be the one to provide for them,” Crook said.
Crook grew up in a small town outside of Detroit, but she knew that if she was going to become an independent adult that her parents could rely on, she would need to move to a college that was far away. Despite the distance, Crook says everyone in her hometown is still rooting for her.
“When I first got here I kept to myself because I was so focused on my school work and I knew that I needed to do well. I was part of SPARK, so I came early and that was [nice] because I got to know where all the buildings were and [the program] went over questions that we might have had as first-generation students,” Crook said.
SPARK is a Knox program aimed at students from low-income and minority backgrounds. Students are invited to come to Knox earlier than their classmates and take some courses in order to understand the college workload better.
For Crook, SPARK was a crucial part of her early times at Knox, and she is now a mentor for incoming students and freshmen that also may be the first in their families to go to college.
“The biggest thing that a lot of people forget is that you are not the only person [coming from a first generation background] and that there is a support system so that you’re not alone in cases like this,” Crook said.
Senior Charles Gomez, however, did feel alone when he first came to Knox. He felt that Knox hadn’t done all the supporting that they could be doing.
“It wasn’t just the people that are overwhelming, it was how should I perform in classes. Specific instructions aren’t being given to me and I don’t know what to do. As a first generation, first term student, I had no idea,” he said, “I feel that they get all these first-generation students and are excited to have them on campus, and then that’s it.”
Gomez even felt that after his first term at Knox, he might drop out. He shared that he felt so alone in his endeavor that he didn’t know where to turn, and the college wasn’t showing the support he desperately needed. After receiving the news he was put on academic probation, he wished for an ally more than ever.
Both Denial and Gomez agreed that the professors and faculty could actively be doing a better job at supporting the students on campus who come in with no guidance from their parents.
“So many people are like ‘this college cares about you’ and this and that and whatever but they themselves don’t actively support students as well,” Gomez said. “‘We are so happy to have you here, do everything on your own.’”
Denial hopes that her office offers a sort of sanctuary for first-generation students. With a post on her wall that says “I’m first” and a space set up like a living room, she hopes to offer students, especially first-generation students, a place to escape.
“Know that you are not the first to feel these things and experience these things, look for the things on people’s doors that say ‘I’m first’ for a sympathetic ear,” she said. “It’s an incredible thing to go to college when no one else in your family has gone to college before, that’s a huge achievement.”