Student Guest Post: 10 things I wish I knew in my first semester as a first gen student

Editor’s Note: This post was sent to use by one of our Anthropology Honours students, Brieal M-T (@mxmoireabh for the Twitter savvy), who has been very open with us and with their classmates about the challenges they have faced in university as a result of multiple factors of their identity and experiences. Because they are a helpful soul, they are passing on what they have learned through several years of hard work here, and this is a great resource to send along to incoming students. In discussing academia, academic life, and things like the “hidden curriculum”, we often implicitly or explicitly exclude undergrads from the discussion, but in fact the challenges to accessibility and the hiding of the curriculum certain affect them, and deserve to be addressed in the conversation about how to support first generation scholars and otherwise marginalized folks.

If you’re into Academic Twitter you’ve probably seen the #hiddencurriculum hashtag making its rounds, but especially this past weekend. The first time I personally saw the hashtag was in reference to this Tweet:

https://twitter.com/travisclau/status/1021442146459684864

I was, uh, a bit salty about the language used that (to me) assumes horizontal networking begins in grad school, and immediately sent the Tweet to a group chat I’m in with some other anthropology students with the caption “Anyways I’m constantly frustrated by the idea that undergrad work isn’t academic work, thus we’re usually excluded from hidden ac talks, but anyways this is important.” Finding people with whom I can connect to as fellow students has been fantastic, and while the majority of this post was written as a personal exercise over a year ago I’m only able to share it now because I’ve been able to speak with other students and refine what all may be useful to others. While having friends who aren’t students is important as well, being able to connect with people who are experiencing some of the same stresses is invaluable!

Some backstory on me: I’m a white, queer, disabled, first-gen university student (there’s a lot of trades tickets and technical diplomas in my fam, but I’ll be the first to get a university degree), and I almost wasn’t even that because I dropped out of high school 3 semesters in primarily due to illness. While I eventually got my GED in order to attend a local technical institute, the entry requirements for the program I wanted to apply for (bakery sciences) changed literally the year I went to apply, and I’ve never actually been able to use my GED for much of anything except being proud that I eventually did get it (which is useful! I’m not knocking it!).

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s/o to my local WalMart for somehow having robes that semi-sorta fit me  [Editor: Aw, baby BMT!]
As a first-gen student hidden academia and hidden curriculum begins the moment we apply for university (ex. I applied to 3 universities between my first semester and the time I got into my BA program, and didn’t know those fees could have been waived/reduced had I contacted the respective registrar’s offices prior to my application). While there’s always going to be things I feel unprepared for moving forward in my academic career I can’t thank the mentors in my life enough for helping me wade through the muck. Being aware that there’s always going to be something I can’t be aware of is an unbelievably important skill that was unfortunately hard-won. Like the title of this post implies, here’s a few things I wish I knew before starting my degree/have subsequently stubbed my toes on a few times in order to learn…

Planning ahead:

  1. Assume that you’re going to get sick, and try to coordinate assignments accordingly.
    • Basically: sit down at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and plan out how and when you plan to complete assignments. This is… honestly a slog… but it’s a slog that’s absolutely invaluable when it comes to actually getting your work done. Make sure you choose a calendar that you’ll actually look at regularly! I plan my assignments out using the default calendar app on my phone, in addition to in a bullet journal.
  2. Pick profs who you know aren’t assholes (this can be tough, especially if whatever you’re passionate about happens to be a department filled with assholes, BUT there will always be kind profs in any field–find them and stick with them as much as possible). Be mindful that not every prof fits every student, and speak to as many people about their experiences in someone’s classroom as possible!
  3. If your institution has an SSD (services for students with disabilities) office then go! to! them! Even if you don’t think your disability is “severe” enough to require accommodation it’s still a good idea to be assessed by a learning specialist and have them provide suggestions of how you may be better set up for success moving forward.
    • Sometimes people/things who are meant to help us end up hurting us, so can’t stress enough how important it is to find other people with similarly marginalized aspects of identity who have taken classes with specific professors (and also subsequently worked within your university’s structures) and talk to them about their experiences. Take them out for lunch, or grab a coffee together! Even if they can’t help you, at least you’ve made a friend!
  4. Campuses are awful! All of them! I would be shocked to learn of a campus that unilaterally supports every student’s transportation needs. To that end: When you settle on your classes each semester take the time before Day 1 to walk (as slow as is physically possible) between said classes to make sure you know where they are/will have time to get to where you need to be even on the worst days.
  5. Don’t live on-campus? Invest in a fucking locker. Yes, seriously.
    • In my first year out of campus housing I used my locker all of, maybe, 5 times? but those 5 times were so helpful that the locker cost was 100% worth it. I can’t stress enough: books are heavy, and your back WILL eventually revolt. If you can’t afford a locker on your own find a buddy to split the costs with! Apply for a remittance! Anything! Just save your back the trouble!

Find the things that help you succeed:

  1. Use whatever tech helps you, and don’t let profs tell you you’re doing it wrong.
    • I get wicked migraines, and have found that using a red screen overlay is an unbelievably simple (but effective) tool for preventing migraines/something that sometimes allows me to work throughout a migraine! Amber tinted glasses work in much the same way (thanks to Jamie for this suggestion)!
    • I use my phone for all of my digital readings, and on days where I can’t use my laptop for whatever reason for drafting as well (actually this entire post was written using my phone). Programs I find helpful for phone-study are Foxit PDF, Microsoft OneNote, Google Drive (suite), and both of my uni’s apps. I’ve also bookmarked the university login portal to my homescreen in case the app doesn’t work. Generally I download readings, then upload them again to my Google Drive for easy access.
    • I’ve found that sometimes writing just isn’t possible. Investing in a decent speech-to-text program can be invaluable. The program I use primarily is Dragon Naturally Speaking Home Edition 12 (my dad and I split the cost of an OEM edition so we could get multiple product keys at a discount), but honestly I’ve used the Android speech-to-text function on my phone and it’s functionable once you get used to it!
  2. If you study better with background noise: make a huge-ass playlist to turn to on the regular so you’ve got tunes on-hand and don’t always have to look for things to put you in a good studying headspace.
    • My current “Studytime” playlist in Spotify is almost 13 hours long, and primarily made up of intrumental video game OSTs, for example.
  3. Audiobooks are great, and an absolutely fantastic way to experience texts. Librivox is useful for public domain things (check Project Gutenberg for text versions), and Audible is worth it (ime) for novels. On occasion articles can be found being read aloud on YouTube from conference presentations (sometimes this means you’re missing some of the article, but in a crunch it works). Also don’t be afraid to contact the library about ordering materials in for you! Librarians are there to help!
  4. Talk to profs about handing in alternative assignments. This is something that goes with “research your prof”/”stick with who you know” but honestly if Twitter essays/podcasts/blogs/whatever are easier for you and allow you your highest chance of success then the risk in asking is worth it.
    • I’ve found that when I provide a portfolio/reference of my previous work in a medium profs tend to be more willing because they can then see how I’ve succeeded in the past. Keep track of your old notes and assignments! You never know when they’ll come in handy!

Finally:

  • Don’t give up. Or do. Sometimes people are unwilling to work with you, or your body really can’t take anymore, or whatever. Knowing your own boundaries/limitations is important! Listen to your body!
    • Note: I’ve unfortunately had to drop (without refund) an incredible number of classes because I tend to think with my good day brain instead of my bad day brain. The financial fallout from that has been fucking terrible, but overall it’s better than burning out and having to drop out entirely sans-degree. A few semesters ago I finally spoke to a case worker through my school’s mental health services office who was able to help me better plan my resources (including time!) going forward, and while the success rate with that isn’t 100% I’m still better off today for having accessed that resource than I would be if I hadn’t.

If you have the time and energy I can’t recommend reading through the #hiddencurriculum tag on Twitter enough. I’ve seen a lot of GREAT threads offering reading suggestions, and so many people offering their own personal narratives as insight (like I’ve [hopefully] done here!).

University is unnecessarily complex most of the time, so regardless of what you find works for you stick to it!(!!) Don’t be afraid to reach out!(!!) Kick ass!(!!) I believe in you!(!!)

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to proofread this post for me, including: a few people who would rather remain anonymous, my friend Jamie Elyse, and my Mum (yes, really)!

 

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2 thoughts on “Student Guest Post: 10 things I wish I knew in my first semester as a first gen student

  1. Great points you made here! I am Dyslexic and let me tell you how much fun that is…yeh…

    You pointed out some important issues here and I hope this post helps others in the academic world, or pre-academic world?, help students like you navigate academia better. Thanks for writing this!

    Liked by 1 person

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