March 28, 2018

An Invisible Syndrome: perspectives from a first-gen faculty member

— Dr. Shelley Howell, TLS Consultant and UTSA Lecturer

I remember the first day I stepped onto a college campus. I stopped by to see about taking a writing class. Just one class. I was almost 20 years old, married, and about to have a baby, so I didn’t think going to college full-time was an option for me. I just wanted to know how I could learn more about fiction writing on that particular day. Although I had done well in high school, my path didn’t seem to be headed in an academic direction. Neither of my parents had even finished high school and I had just graduated from a small, rural high school where no one really talked about going to college. My community was made up mostly of farmers, ranchers and factory workers. Who was I to think I could go to college?

Many first-generation college students have these same thoughts and feelings. I’ve since come to learn the academic term for this – It’s called “imposter syndrome.” I was once one of the students I see in my class – a non-traditional, first generation college student trying to decide what I want to be and do when I grow up. I didn’t think I really belonged, because I didn’t know the things other students seemed to know – like what clothes to wear when and what fork to use for what. I didn’t know about sororities or study groups or even how to carry my books. I felt like everyone was looking at me and thinking: “What’s she doing here?” They weren’t, of course, but it took me a long time to realize they weren’t.

There was one single person that very first day who helped me get started and guided me through this unfamiliar experience: The faculty member assigned to advise English majors on that day I stopped by, Dr. Faith Lovell. She saw my potential and encouraged me to enroll full time by offering me an academic scholarship based on my ACT scores. She signed me up for four courses that day, all in subjects I loved, and sent me to the financial aid office to apply for grants to help pay for child care and books. She made sure I felt welcome when school started later that month, and personally introduced me to the rest of the faculty and some of the English department’s students. She is, to this day, one of my mentors. Dr. Lovell changed my life that day.

Like Dr. Lovell, you can make a difference in the life of a first-generation student, just by recognizing what they may be thinking and feeling. First generation college students face many challenges when they arrive on campus, from not understanding academic language to not realizing how to enroll and pay for courses. They can feel isolated, unworthy and nervous about the whole idea of college. Simply recognizing and acknowledging these feelings can go a long way toward understanding first generation students.

So, while we prepare for Easter, Fiesta and summer vacations, let’s not forget our first-generation college students and celebrate their accomplishments next week at UTSA’s First Gen Fest!

This year we have six days of celebrating & learning — all lined up between April 2-7. Check out the full calendar of events here.

Faculty are especially encouraged to sign up for the First Gen Institute on Friday, April 6. This day-long event features educational sessions for faculty and staff on best practices for working with first generation students. You can attend all or choose specific sessions to meet your needs. Register for the Institute here.