First-generation students overcome unique challenges in order to attain higher education. But, by pursuing careers in social work, they're also a group that gives back.
By Melissa Kvidahl Reilly
Adiba Saleem '19 started her junior year of high school in Newark, New Jersey with her eyes set on college. She saw her friends signing up for the SAT, and visited her guidance counselor to ask for a fee waiver.
“My guidance counselor told me there was no point in even trying, since I’d never make it into a university,” Saleem recalls. “She ripped up my fee waiver application and threw it in the trash in front of me. I was hurt, and felt discouraged.”
As the first in her family to pursue a college education, Saleem wasn’t sure how to find help or what to do. She didn’t apply to college for another two years.
Roughly 75 miles away in Philadelphia, Charles Chear — now Teaching Instructor, Assistant Director of Student Affairs, and Newark Campus Coordinator — was finding his way as the child of survivors of the Cambodian genocide. His parents ran a small jewelry shop, but had bigger aspirations for their son. “I told them I wouldn’t mind being in the family business, but my father shut it down anytime I hinted that I enjoyed repairing jewelry,” he says. “It was very clear that he wanted me to be a ‘professional’ and not a laborer.”
But not having gone to college himself, Chear’s father wasn’t able to help him navigate the confusing world of higher education. And cultural barriers, like a distrust in institutions and a hesitation to disclose personal information due to past persecution in Cambodia, didn’t make it any easier to find scholarships, aid, or other resources that could help. Though they’re quite different, what unites these stories is that they exemplify the first-generation college experience. Though it’s not a homogenous group by any stretch, it’s one that faces some common challenges.
Many first-generation students, for example, come from families where college was inaccessible due to financial constraints, family obligations, immigration status, language and cultural barriers, or other challenges. At Rutgers School of Social Work, first-generation students and faculty are paving a path to higher education for their own families, but also putting their education to work by addressing these and other inequities faced by all kinds of underserved communities.
First-generation students face a unique set of challenges, beginning with the college application process. For example, though Chear wanted to join sports and other after-school activities, this was discouraged by his parents who thought it would take away from his studies and hurt his chances of getting into college.
“I tried to tell them it was otherwise, that getting into extracurricular activities can actually enhance one’s applications, but they were firm in this belief that it didn’t do any good,” he says. “This came from them just not understanding college.”
Once they arrive on campus, first-generation students all face immense pressure to succeed. This was the case for Saleem, who explains that being a first-generation student is about more than earning a degree.
“It’s about taking your family to the next level,” she says. “We have a lot riding on our backs, as your family is pushing for you to succeed and take that legacy a step further.”
For Rachael Smith ’19, the pressure was in proving to her parents that she was making the right choices. “Trying to explain the importance of education to someone who never went to college can be hard,” she says, especially since her parents found success without going to college. This hurdle was as large as making the case for college in general, and as small as making the case for studying on Saturdays rather than waitressing, when earning potential was highest. And while her friends’ parents were encouraging their children to follow their passions — and worry about work later — Smith felt a lot of pressure to choose a major that would “pay off” in terms of salary after graduation.
“Convincing my parents that social work, and especially a master’s degree, was the path for me took a lot of time,” she admits. This divide becomes even more apparent the higher a student progresses in academia. Laura Johnson ’12, ’18, now Assistant Research Professor at the School of Social Work’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children, recalls the process of becoming a faculty member and not meeting many students like herself.
“This isn’t the case for everyone, but it’s more common for people with doctoral degrees to come from families with doctorates and advanced degrees, which means they often already have a sense of the culture of academia,” she says. “My dad was a plumber. So I didn’t grow up with flowy academic jargon. I couldn’t ask my family for career advice. That path just wasn’t modeled for me.”
What compounds these challenges is that first-generation status is something students don’t often talk about, either because they don’t have the language to describe it or because they don’t see it as something worth bringing up.
Chear says, “Even on my undergraduate application, I didn’t mention that I was first-generation, from a Cambodian refugee background, or anything about my identity. I didn’t know you could get scholarships or admission points for being underprivileged.”
Ericka Deglau, Professor of Teaching and Director of the Intensive Weekend Program, puts it this way: “I felt different but didn’t look different from my essentially upper middle class peers when I got to college. I didn’t have many of the experiences my peers did since I grew up in a working class family with a different cultural and linguistic background.”
Drawn to and working with different cultural and ethnic groups starting in the 1970s, it became quickly evident that others faced more obvious hurdles because of skin color and socioeconomic status. It was then that systemic inequities became clear to her.
If you ask Danielle Slavin ’19, it’s time for first-generation students to speak up. “Being a first-generation student isn’t something that is spoken about, unless it’s directly asked, and I’m not sure why,” she says. “We should be proud of this, because it is such a huge accomplishment. We didn’t have a clue what we were getting ourselves into with higher education, and we couldn’t rely on our parents to guide us. We don’t recognize it as the big deal that it is.”
Here at Rutgers, 35 percent of undergraduates arriving on the Banks are first-generation students, and 79 percent of them graduate, well above the national average of 26 percent. It’s no coincidence, since Rutgers intentionally invests in this often underserved population. Not only does Student Support Services (SSS) provide resources like one-on-one tutoring, career and academic coaching, and financial support, but gateways like RU1st are designed to support first-generation students in their pursuit of a diploma. At the School of Social Work, the Intensive Weekend MSW program allows students to continue working full time in the field while pursuing a master’s degree. That said, a number of first-generation students happen to find themselves in this program, says Deglau.
“This gets to my gut because I had this experience,” she says. “The fact that this program makes it possible to gain skills without interrupting their career is financially critical for many firstgeneration students,” she says.
Champions of Change
Deglau isn’t the only first-generation graduate or faculty member finding herself working in an area that mitigates the challenges she witnessed growing up. In fact, many share a similar story.
Johnson says, “A lot of people in social work come into the field because of things they’ve experienced or challenges they’ve observed in their own lives and, broadly, first-generation students may not have grown up with the same opportunities as other students. If you’re a first-generation student because you’ve had family recently immigrate, faced financial challenges, or had other responsibilities, all these cultural factors might motivate someone to pursue social work.”
It certainly did in Johnson’s case. Her grandmother grew up in a traditional family, and women were expected to be homemakers. When she voiced a desire to be a nurse, her family refused to allow it. Johnson’s mother, one generation later, wanted to be a hairdresser. Again, it was discouraged.
“As a result, my mother always communicated to me growing up that it was important for women to be independent,” she says. “I took that literally in some ways when I became committed to women’s rights and advocating on behalf of women.”
Drawing work inspiration from familiar hardships is also the case for Chear, whose current practice and research interests center on Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees, and the violence and poverty they continue to endure in Philadelphia, Camden, and elsewhere.
And what about Saleem, who was silenced in her guidance counselor’s office as a teenager?
“I want to be a voice for people who cannot be a voice for themselves,” she says, recalling that she had no one to advocate for her when her guidance counselor ripped up her SAT fee waiver. “I don’t know if that counselor realized just how much she could have impacted my life if I took her advice and never tried. It doesn’t matter how little a person has, or what mistakes they have made in life. Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”