The First-Generation College Experience

It’s a chilly morning at Michigan State University and the campus in East Lansing hasn’t yet woken up.

Christopher and I walk along a trail that goes through campus. We’re back at MSU to try and figure out what went wrong during his time there.

The campus is beautiful in the early morning air — it’s just one thing that Christopher says he loves about the campus.

“Even though there are a ton of buildings, there are a lot of pockets on campus where it’s nothing but nature. Where you can get away and just…” he trails off with a heavy sigh.

“Is mom going to be OK? Does mom have the money to pay the bills this month? Is she going to go without hot water? Is she going to get evicted? That was my worry every day.

Christopher Feaster, on feeling guilty about his mother's struggles back in D.C. while he lived comfortably on campus.

Christopher grew up in one of the poorest parts of Washington, D.C. He and his mother went through frequent bouts of homelessness when he went to high school — often staying in shelters.

When he came to Michigan State as a student, he took a lot of long solitary walks to — as he describes it — “distract his brain.” Christopher was just 17 when he arrived here. It was his first time away from his mother. And the first time he had a room to call his own.

“I was completely on cloud nine. I was like ‘I have my own space, I have my own space!’ But my first night was when the reality of the situation hit me. And I said ‘I’m on my own. Whoa!’” Christopher says.

It was, as Christopher puts it, “an insanely big change.”

“I went in with everyone having these titanical expectations, not to mention a full-ride scholarship. And I’m just like, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, I don’t know, that’s a lot,’” he says.

By his first week on campus, doubts had already started to creep in. And all the differences Christopher noticed just magnified those fears.

He had attended a small high school where he knew everyone and all his classmates were minorities like him. But Michigan State has more than 37,000 undergraduates and three out of every four students are white. He wasn’t familiar with things like the clothing brands other students talked about, and on the flip side, no one understood his D.C. slang.

“They had more of the Midwest suburb type deal going on and I’m vibrating on an urban frequency. I really had to watch my words,” he says. “I’m used to when I want to talk to someone, ‘Hey what’s up, I’m trying to head over to the spot later. You tryin’ to chill with me or what?’ Up in Michigan State it’s, ‘Hey, do you want to go to the movies later? Or not? Or what do you want to do?’”

Christopher is excited to introduce me to his fraternity brothers, his old dorm room and the dining hall where he used to eat most of his meals. It’s the size of a large mall food court. There are seemingly endless varieties of pasta and pizza, sandwiches and sushi. The breakfast section has 16 different types of cereal.

All the choices were overwhelming for him, a sharp contrast to the life he had left behind. At the time, his mother had moved out of the homeless shelter and into subsidized housing, but was still struggling.

“Honestly when I was here, my main concern was ‘Is mom going to be OK? Does mom have the money to pay the bills this month? Is she going to go without hot water? Is she going to get evicted?’ That was my worry every day,” he says.

The “golden trio”: Katie Beeler, Christopher Feaster and Khalil Speller were drawn to each other because of their similar experiences at first-generation students. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)
Finding friends in similar circumstances

Outside, Christopher points out buildings as we pass.

“Right here, you have Spartan Stadium. That’s our football stadium,” he says, sounding very much like an official campus tour guide. “Even now when I’m in D.C., if I see someone wearing MSU clothing I will go, ‘Go Green’ and they will automatically just laugh and then immediately respond ‘Go White!’”

We’re meeting up with two of Christopher’s best friends from his time at MSU: Katie Beeler and Khalil Speller.

Khalil says they were the “golden trio.”

“I took it from Harry Potter because Harry, Ron and Hermione are like the golden trio and we kind of act like Harry, Ron and Hermione at times,” Khalil says.

They weren’t in the same dorm room, weren’t in the same program, and they didn’t even come from the same city, but they still gravitated toward one another because all three were the first in their families to go to college.

Katie says it didn’t take her long to figure out she was different from many of her classmates at MSU.

“It was actually the first week of school maybe. Everyone was like ‘Oh yeah, my parents went here. They’re alumni.’ And it gets around to me and I’m like, ‘My parents didn’t go to college,’” Katie says. “And everyone just gave me this weird look like, ‘Oh my god, her parents didn’t go to college?’”

That wasn’t the only difference.

“Basically it all boils down to money, because these kids were spending like outrageous amounts of money on clothes. I saw a girl shopping online for shoes that were $245. For a pair of shoes!” Khalil says.

All three were very good students in high school, yet they struggled academically when they got to MSU. Having to take remedial courses makes it less likely a student will graduate. And this is especially difficult and discouraging for low-income students, because those courses use up their student loan money while not earning any college credit.

Like Christopher, Khalil and Katie have both struggled in college. Khalil had anxiety attacks every time he had to take a test, and Katie struggled with illness.

“I had strep throat; I had a kidney infection; I had the flu a lot. I think the majority of it was stress. It was bad,” Katie says. “I didn’t want to worry anybody at home about my problems because I thought I could fix them on my own. It got me on academic probation trying to fix them on my own. But what I had in my mind is I could do this on my own because I’ve been doing it on my own forever.”

Katie’s struggle with sickness forced her to withdraw from classes for a year. It’s her third year in college, but she’s still a sophomore in the Zoology program. Khalil is in his junior year studying Media and Information.

They still struggle. Christopher left.

Help comes too late

Christopher did have some support at Michigan State, including his adviser Amy Radford-Popp.

Now the assistant director for the residential business program community at MSU, Radford-Popp was a “motherly, guiding figure” for Christopher during his time at the school. She was in charge of more than 150 students at that time, but she remembers him.

“From day one, you were very charismatic and you just struck me as someone who was very thankful for the opportunity to get an education,” Radford-Popp says.

For Christopher, just being remembered is something.

“The fact that someone remembers me, you have no idea how appreciative… oh man. I miss you,” he says.

“You’re welcome honey, you’re welcome. I’m proud of you,” she says.

Radford-Popp says that in her 25 years working with students, cases like Christopher’s are fairly common.

Since Christopher left, Radford-Popp says MSU now has more support for students and what she calls “intentional outreach.”

“We’ve ramped up training in the last couple years for folks to deal with issues that are not just academic, but some of the emotional things,” she says. “Another thing we now have is a success coach. It’s an upperclass junior/senior that just come to check in: ‘How are things going?’ You never know who’s going to have an impact.”

But for Christopher that help came too late.

First-Generation College Students Face Additional Struggles
Members of the DC College Success Foundation share examples of the kind of struggles endured by first-generation college students that their more privileged peers don’t have to deal with.
How the ‘little things’ make a difference

For many low-income students, the support they need can be much simpler in nature than one might imagine.

At the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that gives some of the poorest students scholarships and support through college, Monica Gray is going through stacks of supplies. She’s the director of programs for the College Success Foundation in Washington, D.C.

“We keep emergency supplies here: soap, toothpaste, deodorant, socks, hats,” she says.

Gray calls these the “littlest things” no one thinks about, the absence of which can cause a student to leave campus.

“We’ve had students who haven’t gone to school for a week because they didn’t have money to do laundry and the student didn’t want to come to school dirty or they didn’t have soap. We have emergency sheets and towels and backpacks full of school supplies,” she says.

Gray says many students she works with just don’t understand all the aspects of college they have to consider. Costs are not just about tuition and housing but also books and transportation.

“That often means that students don’t buy their books and try to get by borrowing books, checking out books at the library,” she says. “And sometimes that can mean that a student doesn’t return for a second semester because they don’t have the money to buy a bus ticket or train ticket or plane ticket to get back.”

Many of these students have helped support their families financially or cared for younger siblings. In immigrant families, these teens may be the only ones who can translate for the entire family. Sometimes that means these students feel “survivor’s guilt” because while the outside world is celebrating their success, they feel like they’re failing their own families.

“We know stories of kids who get rid of their meal plan so that they can send some funds back to their families and they’re barely eating,” she says.

The College Success Foundation offers “emergency supplies,” the absence of which is felt most keenly by low-income students. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)

Gray says there’s also the culture of college, which many students don’t realize is different from high school. Take office hours, for instance.

“You know that the students who want to get the best grades in class are always at the professor’s office hours. But from the high school model, particularly the high school model that a lot of our students come from, getting help from the teacher means that you’re not doing well academically or that you’re in trouble. It has a negative connotation,” Gray says.

Studies show that low-income, first-generation students often don’t use all the resources colleges offer, unlike wealthier students who know how to advocate for themselves or have family members who step in. Gray says this difference is particularly stark when it comes to mental health services.

“It’s not uncommon to have students who have had some family trauma that they’ve not dealt with, fall into a depression and stop attending classes,” Gray says. “One of the things that we encourage students to do even before they go to school is to seek out the mental health resources at colleges and universities. Unfortunately what we find is that first-generation students, low-income students, students from communities of color are often hesitant to do that.”

Gray says for students like Christopher who have done all the “right things” — studied hard and overcome huge obstacles — it can be discouraging to see college classmates who seem so far ahead of them, have so much more support, or don’t have to worry about money.

She says it’s common for lower income students to feel overwhelmed and unable to compete. And what’s worse, says Gray, is that when so many students have debt and are disillusioned, it can change a community’s whole narrative about college.

“Every student that we serve has a story of a cousin, a sibling, a friend, a neighbor who went to college but had to drop out. And that is what a lot of people use as a reason for students not to try to go,” Gray says. “If we don’t find ways to be more effective in getting low-income, first-generation students not only into college but through college, we are going to create a generation of low-income, first-generation college dropouts.”

How it feels to be back at college

Christopher Feaster shares what it feels like being back at Michigan State University with his fraternity brothers.

The decision to reapply

Christopher Feaster’s visit back to Michigan State has been an emotional roller coaster ride. He and his friends Katie Beeler and Khalil Speller are singing and laughing, trying to make the most of Christopher’s last day here before he flies back to D.C.

Despite their challenges, Katie and Khalil are very aware of the need to get a college degree.

“All of the things I want to do in life, I need this degree for. You can barely get a job anywhere without a degree. Can you even work at McDonald’s without a bachelor’s?” Khalil asks.

“You need a degree for everything in America. I swear you do. It’s crazy,” Katie says.

“Being a taxi driver you need a degree,” Khalil adds.

Khalil Speller, Christopher Feaster and Katie Beeler reminisce about the good times they shared as freshmen, even though they struggled. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)

Christopher is silent.

As we walk along, I overhear Christopher and Katie talking about “admission.” The previous night, the two of them had looked into the readmission application on the MSU website.

“I have decided that I’m going to stop procrastinating and I’m just going to reapply,” Christopher says.

They talk excitedly about how cool it will be if Christopher comes back to MSU. Then we reach Katie’s dorm.

They promise to keep in touch and Christopher watches Katie and Khalil walk away. It’s been a bittersweet visit for him because when he’s with them, he’s reminded of what could have been.

“I’m trying really, really hard not to cry right now. I feel as though I let everyone down, I feel really, it really weighs down on my spirit,” he says. “If there’s one thing I could do different about my time at Michigan State, I wouldn’t let my doubts get to me. I know I want to come back, I’m just so worried that I can’t do it. I’m just so worried that I’m going to fail all over again.”