Forging their own legacies
Claros, who grew up in Union City, N.J., and attended Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, is the first person in his elementary school district to go to Princeton. He estimated that roughly half of the students in Union City do not attend college, while those who do typically go to community college.
Figures for the classes of 2012 and 2013 have not yet been released, but 11 percent of enrolled students in the classes of 2010 and 2011 reported that they were the first in their family to attend college. For some of these students, transitioning to college life has proven especially challenging because they don’t know what to expect from college and have trouble discussing their Princeton experiences with their parents.
Rena Chen ’11, who is a first-generation college student, said that talking about her life at Princeton with her mother, who did not finish high school in China, is difficult.
“I noticed that a lot of kids regularly get calls from their parents, and I never really get that because my mom is working all the time,” Chen said. “When I do try to talk to my mom, she won’t be able to understand, because sometimes I’m not able to translate correctly.”
Chen added that explaining her grades and choice of major was especially difficult because her parents had never attended college.
She explained that she has a hard time discussing her classes with her father because his educational experiences were so different. “He never went to college, and he’s never taken college-level courses. It’s really hard understanding each other sometimes,” Chen noted.
Michael Skiles ’12, whose father couldn’t afford college and whose mother, a dance teacher, chose not to attend college, also said that communicating with his parents about life at Princeton could be challenging.
“Though very intelligent, my parents have a very difficult time understanding the academic framework for a lot of the courses I’m taking,” Skiles said. “I feel like I’m not able to communicate with them because they don’t seem to have the same sort of educated liberal arts background that I’ve been getting.”
Qin Zhi Lau ’11, who is also a first-generation college student, said that most of the difficulties he faced in adjusting to college were due to his transition from a small, rural community to a more urban one. But he said it was also difficult for him to explain the social scene and academic matters to his parents, especially “Princeton peculiarities” like grade deflation.
“Explaining how academically challenging Princeton is can be difficult, but my parents generally have lent a very friendly ear, so they’re learning too about what college life is like,” Lau said.
Applying to college
“[My parents] didn’t really help me a lot [with the college admissions process],” said Chen, who applied to 14 colleges. “They didn’t know where I was applying and just kind of expected me to do things on my own.”
Like the other students interviewed, she said there was less pressure in her community to be accepted to an elite university but noted that the admission process was probably more difficult for her than it would have been if her parents had gone to college.
Claros said his family didn’t have particular expectations for his plans after high school.
“My parents didn’t understand the cultural weight of Princeton,” he explained. “It only sunk in when they started telling other people or saw the reaction of other people when they wore the Princeton sweatshirt.”
Claros said he was fortunate to have received advice from Exeter in the admissions process about issues like waiving application fees.
“It would have been really difficult to try and do this on my own,” he said.
Chen said that she found most of the information she needed by browsing online and asking counselors and teachers for help with the college application process. She explained that applying for financial aid was the most difficult part of the process.
“My dad didn’t help out at all because my parents are divorced,” she explained. “I had to translate everything to my mom, but sometimes I didn’t know if I was filling out the right forms.”
Expectations about college
Skiles explained that one of the disadvantages he faced prior to coming to college was not knowing what to expect when he arrived on campus.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic. Your parents, having never gone through college, don’t know what to tell you and take a backseat, and you kind of lose your learned ability to rely on your parents for information, because they simply don’t have it,” Skiles said, adding that he turned to high school counselors and online forums to learn more about college.
Skiles said he initially expected Princeton to be a “hostile environment” and feared he would have difficulties adjusting. He said he was surprised to find that, in general, the University exceeded his expectations.
“I feared I wouldn’t be able to succeed as well as I have,” Skiles said. “I’ve heard rumors that it would be super cutthroat and competitive and just a very institutionalized system.”
Claros, who said he was from an “underprivileged background,” noted that had it not been for his boarding school experience at Exeter, his transition to college life would have been much more difficult.
“Academically and emotionally, I felt completely ready for college,” Claros said. “But this experience would have been so much more traumatic if Exeter hadn’t happened for me.”
He added, though, that the transition to Princeton was a lot more difficult than the transition to Exeter and that he was more aware of his “non-legacy, non-affluence” status when coming to Princeton.
“There are a lot of social things that go on at Princeton that make it more difficult here to acclimate into what Princeton means,” Claros said. “At Princeton if you don’t have money then you’re more aware of it.”
Sociology professor Marta Tienda, who has researched factors affecting access to education, was the first in her family to attend college and said that adjusting to college life is typically more difficult for students who are the first in their family to attend.
“As a first-generation college student, I was bewildered. There was so much that was new: Communal bathrooms, communal meals, classes spread over multiple buildings, huge lecture classes — not to mention few familiar faces,” Tienda said.
Advising at Princeton
Skiles said one of the greatest disadvantages he faced once he arrived on campus last fall was the undergraduate advising system, which left him unsure of where to seek academic and social advice aside from information that trickled down to him from upperclassmen.
Of his meeting with his academic adviser, Skiles explained that “it turn[ed] out to be a very, very short meeting.” He added that he wished there were more opportunities for general advising to guide students through things like the campus social scene and logistical issues like housing.
“Adjusting to college is a very individual process,” explained sociology professor Miguel Centeno, one of the founders of the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), which prepares low-income high school students to apply to selective colleges. “It’s not generically more difficult for these students [whose parents haven’t attended college] but the number of probable issues is going to increase if you don’t have that kind of family background.”
Many students in PUPP will be the first in their family to attend college. Centeno said that many parents are unable to provide the resources or advice that their children need and that PUPP often serves as a “surrogate family” by helping students navigate the application process and transition to college life.
Lau, who spent last summer as an intern for the Quest Scholars Program, a nonprofit organization that aims to help students of lower socioeconomic means attend college, said he believed the level of education within a family was often directly linked to its socioeconomic status.
“In reality, for students who are of low socioeconomic means, their families don’t emphasize education as much, and they may feel pressure to not go to college,” Lau said. “But, at the same time, a lot of the financial aid programs are beginning to level the playing field.”
Though he said he believes financial aid plays a positive role in encouraging students to attend college when their parents did not, he added that some students he spoke to still experienced “sticker shock” when they saw the cost of tuition and said they were not aware of the financial aid policies at universities such as Princeton.
Centeno said that not having parents who have gone to college also puts students at a disadvantage by making certain aspects of college life — including cultural rules, what to expect and forging relationships with faculty members — more difficult to deal with. This is especially true, he said, “if no one in your house knows what you’re going through.”
“What the University can do to help these students is very tricky,” Centeno said. “The worst thing it can do is engage in paternalistic, patronizing behavior that says, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ but it needs to recognize that they may need some special counseling or treatment but also making students feel like they belong here.”
Lau said, overall, he liked being forced to form his own opinion of college life when he arrived at Princeton.
“Not having parents who are aware of college life, it’s up to me to make it how I wish rather than having predefined ideas given by my mom or dad,” he explained.