By Elizabeth Labiner
Graduate school is by no means easy, but approaching and navigating graduate programs as a first-generation college student presents particular challenges. Achieving an undergraduate degree is momentous on its own, even before tackling a graduate degree.
For Nick Bielski, a PhD student in the Arizona Biological and Biomedical Sciences program, the challenges began well before he applied for college. “My parents were not sold on the concept of college or the possible returns an investment like that in yourself would bring,” he remembers. “Deciding on where to go to college and filling out the applications was probably the most difficult part, as well as trying to determine how to finance my education.” Once he arrived at the University of Wisconsin - Parkside, he focused on making meaningful connections with his peers and professors, who would eventually help him navigate the complicated processes of preparing for and applying to graduate school.
Ivette Merced, a PhD student in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies, recalls taking a full courseload, working full-time, and raising two children while in college. Merced began her studies at the community college Irvine Valley before transferring to the University of Southern California, where she was surprised by not only the supportive community, but her own academic excellence. She initially struggled with imposter syndrome, reflecting, “I did not view myself as someone who would ever be able to attend a university like USC. I was sure they made a mistake. The university supported me both financially and academically, and I found mentors who took an interest in me and allowed me to explore my research interests.” Merced went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude and earn Master’s degrees from both Columbia and Chapman University before beginning her doctoral work at UArizona.
Patrick Ploschnitzki, a PhD student in Transcultural German Studies, got his undergraduate degree at the University of Cologne. “Generally, the path to college is much less steep in Germany,” Ploschnitzki explains, in large part due to the much lower cost of schooling compared to the United States. Even so, it was not without challenges, particularly since he knew he wanted to go on to graduate school in the United States. He stresses the importance of mentorship from professors, who helped him gain experience working in his field and guided him through the process of applying for graduate programs. “The language barrier was a problem, especially the bureaucratic language,” he remembers, “and I didn’t know how to write a cover letter in English or for an American academic audience, because I didn’t have any academic background.” The difference in background also made him feel as though he was stuck between two worlds -- the academic world in which he wanted to succeed and the life he’d left behind, in which people didn’t really understand or support his schooling -- while not fully a part of either.
Kevin Scott, a student in the College of Pharmacy’s Drug Discovery and Development PhD program, ended up in college almost accidentally after working for several years post-high school. He explains, “I started taking random classes at a local community college without any particular goal in mind. Around that time I also took a part time position working in a laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute, and I immediately fell in love with science. I focused my academic goals on a degree in chemistry and transferred to the University of California, Irvine.” Like many other first-generation students, Scott worked full-time in addition to his studies: “I had to pay my own housing and tuition, so I always had a full-time job throughout my undergrad. This made it challenging to study for classes. Furthermore, to be a competitive applicant for science PhDs, undergraduate research is a must - so in addition to working full-time and studying for classes, I worked in an organic chemistry lab upwards of 30 hours a week.” This made it feel difficult for him to compete against peers who had their tuition and housing paid for by their parents and so did not have to work, but Scott was no stranger to adversity. His childhood was shaped by the challenges inherent to coming to the U.S. as a non-English speaker, but even so, he says, “working full time while earning a degree and doing research for no pay was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done.”
Bielski, Merced, Ploschnitzki, and Scott all note the difficulties associated with paying the fees for exams and applications, much less tuition, which can act as an insurmountable structural barrier to some applicants. “It’s an issue of privilege,” Ploschnitzki notes, “and a gate-keeping device.” They remind students to talk to financial aid officers and administrators to look for ways to pay for those fees, or better yet, have them waived.
All four also emphasize the critically important role played by mentorship from engaged professors in not only fueling their desire to go on to graduate school, but sorting through the logistics of how to do so. Merced initially felt that she was forging ahead alone, but found support throughout her academic career:
As a Latina, the path [to graduate school] was unclear. I figured it out along the way. That being said, I would not be here without individuals who believed in me even before I believed in myself. I have had wonderful mentors and people who really care about me and gave me guidance and support. I did not get to this level by myself. I had professors and mentors who helped me.
Ploschnitzki advises first-generation college students who want to continue on to graduate school to reach out to professors in their field, particularly in graduate programs they might want to attend. Professors, directors of graduate programs, and college deans can all be a great resource for helping a student ready themselves for graduate school and succeed once they’re in. He laughs, “People get really excited about someone wanting to work with them! They’ll want to recruit you more often than not.” Scott likewise encourages first-generation students to seek help early and often, and to follow the advice they’re given. He says, “Academic planning and mental health are two things that I struggled with most, aside from funding. I could have made it easier on myself by following advice from experts with whom I consulted, and by seeking advice more often rather than figuring it out on my own. People have done this before - challenges and all - and there is no reason to invent a new way to go about it.”