What’s it like to be the first in your family to go to university? It’s a question very few Oxford students are in a position to answer. Everyone remembers the sense of pride and achievement they felt the day they received their offer; far fewer know how it feels to open that acceptance letter knowing an offer of a place at Oxford represents something genuinely life-changing. My mum’s tears the day I got my offer were those of a parent who knew her daughter’s future was secured in ways hers had never been. Yet for students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds whose parents didn’t attend university, an Oxford offer marks the start of a journey as fraught with obstacles as it is with opportunity, and one first-generation students at the world’s most prestigious universities are starting to share.
It’s certainly been a busy twelve months for the Ivy League’s first-generation student movement. Through a series of powerful awareness campaigns, from Yale’s ‘First-Gen and Proud’ to #PrincetonIAmHere, first-gen students have started an important conversation about what it’s like to study at institutions whose names are synonymous with privilege and elitism. Students speak of the shame they feel about their family’s financial situation compared to that of wealthier peers, detail flippant remarks made by tutors and fellow students (“You’re so lucky to be on full financial aid”), and describe feeling increasingly distanced from their communities back home while studying alongside a peer-group with whom they often have little in common. In a recent New York Times feature on the first-gen movement, a student at Brown University described the difficulty he faced relating to his peer group at the start of his freshman year: “I had never been surrounded by people who were this rich in my entire life. You’re wondering, what do I have in common with these people? Do I truly belong?”
For many first-generation students, it’s a conversation that’s long overdue. While student campaigns representing female, BME, and LGBTQ students are proving increasingly common, there is a noticeable absence when it comes to conversations about issues of class and social background. Top UK universities have been talking the language of ‘access’ for a number of years: Oxford pumps millions of pounds annually in access initiatives designed to attract the best and the brightest regardless of background. The result has been an increasing number of students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds setting foot within college walls for the first time, but finding when they arrive that they lack spaces to talk about the challenges they face. In a world of dreaming spires and black tie dinners, scholars’ gowns and Latin graces, first-generation students at Oxford often arrive into an alien environment, struggling with the demands of intense academic pressure with parents who struggle to relate. It’s never easy trying to explain this week’s essay crisis to a parent who’s struggling to pay the mortgage and afford food and heating for the month. The gap in understanding is too great; after a while, you just stop trying.
Being a first-generation student is by no means a wholly negative experience. I’m proud to be the first in my family to go to university, and I want to be joined by more first-gen students in the years to come, bringing with them a unique perspective on university life that Oxford so desperately needs. Students on Ivy League campuses have opened a dialogue about what it is to be first-gen, and it’s time for Oxford to join the conversation.