By Grace Farley, BSW ’21
In my second year on the Forty Acres, I was hired as the inaugural resident assistant (RA) for the First-Generation Living Learning Community, UT Austin’s first residence hall for students who are the first in their families to go to college. As an RA, I was trained to provide residents with resources to help them succeed. However, I knew that providing Sabrina with the hours of operation for the tutoring center on campus would not be enough.
Sabrina was taking advanced math and science classes in order to accelerate her graduation. That meant, for example, that in a matter of weeks, she needed to bring her math from Algebra II level, the highest her high school offered, to Calculus I level. Due to the extreme rigor of the classes she was taking and the lack of high-school background in STEM subjects, Sabrina unfortunately failed most of her advanced classes and ended the semester on academic probation. The public education system had failed Sabrina. I have seen firsthand that micro-level solutions are not enough to resolve systemic inequalities.
Sabrina’s story of financial, structural, social and emotional barriers to equity in higher education is not an experience unique to her. As a first-gen student myself, I noticed that I shared much with the residents I was helping as an RA. I drew from this common experience to create supports specific to our needs, such as bi-weekly meetings from topics ranging from impostor syndrome to how to ask your professor for a recommendation letter and how to handle rejection.
Just as residence hall community was getting closer than ever during our second semester together in Spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Forty Acres. We were forced to leave campus. Most of us returned to communities without reliable access to the Internet, and little access to healthcare providers and places to buy healthy foods. Most of us also faced increased family responsibilities such as taking care of siblings or picking up work to contribute to the family budget.
This experience has taught me that the barriers that prevent first-generation college students from enrolling and graduating are pervasive across many systems. The pandemic, along with my social work education, has sparked something within me to create policy solutions that are proactive instead of reactive. I want to be a social worker so that I can advocate for equitable systems that impact young children who have dreams like those of Sabrina, and myself, to be the first in their family to graduate from college.
During the Spring 2021 semester, I am living and working in Washington D.C. as a UT System Archer Fellow. I am a fundraising-and-development intern at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think-tank that analyzes how federal and state budget policy can be used to support programs that reduce inequality and poverty.
As I sit in Washington D.C. in my beautiful apartment, working full-time in fundraising, mingling with people with PhDs, and attending policy talks about lived experiences that I have had, I can’t help but think about my family and community back home.
I think about my parents, who are in their sixties and have pre-existing conditions, but are working full-time and in-person during a pandemic to allow me to follow my college dreams. I think about my grandparents, who depend on my family and myself. It breaks my heart to think about the social isolation they must feel with all of us out of the house. Even before the pandemic made matters worse, I couldn’t imagine complaining to my family about anything related to college because I knew how hard they worked to keep me here.
I have observed that oftentimes, university initiatives for first-gen students are celebratory and focus on pride and community. I agree that community and acceptance of identity are both very important. What is less often talked about, however, is the guilt and sense of isolation that most first-gen students experience.
At the residence hall, we had a space where we could share how we sometimes felt that the university was prouder of us than our families were, how we were not treated like kings and queens when we went back home for summer break, and how hard it was to talk to anyone in our families about difficulties at school because our problems felt so insignificant when compared to theirs.
I am proud that my work at the First-Generation Living and Learning Community helped celebrate each other’s accomplishments but also normalize our feelings and support each other through adversity.
I have been lucky. My social work education has helped me to cope with impostor syndrome feelings and first-gen guilt because I always felt included and valued in discussions. At the Steve Hicks School, I have been given a safe and nurturing community to learn about myself and how I can use my privilege to interrupt oppression. The most influential part of my time at UT Austin has been the time I have spent with my social work peers. Sometimes the dread of combating systemic inequality can make looking at a career in social work overwhelming. But when I am surrounded by passionate people who are eager to work with completely different client populations, I am reassured about my decision.
I promised myself that I will be the last, first-generation college student in my family. I won’t stop advocating for an equitable public education system until that is the case for every family in America regardless of race, class, religion, citizenship status, age and more. I am passionate about social work because I am so grateful for all of the people who helped me be where I am today. I can’t wait to use all I learned at UT Austin to start giving back to others.