“The First-Generation Fallacy”

Reading Andrea Kaston Tange’s recent post about the hurdles facing low-income students got me thinking about what an alliance between first-generation college students and first-generation immigrants might look like, which got me thinking about a scene from Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007).

When Changez, the novel’s narrator, is interviewing for his first post-baccalaureate job, the recruiter asks if he’s on financial aid. When Changez admits that, yes, he is one of the few international students at Princeton receiving financial aid, the recruiter winks: “I was the first guy from my family to go to college. I worked a night shift in Trenton to pay my way … So I get where you’re coming from, Changez. You’re hungry.”

But the recruiter doesn’t get it. Changez’s hunger is not Horatio Alger-ian. Changez is a member of a waning Pakistani elite, a social class whose palatial manses and Punjab Club memberships mask their unserviceable debt. “Our situation,” Changez explains, “is not so different from that of the old European aristocracy … confronted by the ascendance of the bourgeoisie.” But Jim, the recruiter and proud first-generation college student, doesn’t hear this nuance. He wouldn’t hear it. He likes that Changez is like him. He likes mentoring Changez, saying things like “I never let on that I felt like I didn’t belong to this world. Just like you.”

The factitious solidarity Jim forces onto him makes Changez uncomfortable, but he has no choice but to let Jim believe that they are the same, that they grew up, as Jim puts it, “outside the candy story looking in, kid.” By coopting Changez’s narrative in this way, Jim enjoys a renewed vitality to his own progress narrative. He gets to dust off such hackneyed reminiscences about his working-class roots as “I was dirt poor. My dad died of gangrene. So I get the irony of paying a hundred bucks fore a bottle of fermented grape juice, if you know what I mean.”

That Changez doesn’t know what Jim means is immaterial. The point is that Changez is another poor boy who’s overcome adversity, just like Jim. This flattening of Changez’s intricate immigrant story into the plot of a Steve Earle song is arguably what starts the process of Changez’s radicalization. But Jim’s impulse to attach his experience to a larger cohort group is, I think, reasonable. First-generation college students find themselves isolated inside of the very stupid term picked to describe them.[1]

When applied to the experience of being the first member of a working-class family to attend college and not to the experience of having recently immigrated, the term “first-generation” is something of a false cognate. The word generation in both cases is a kinship term, as opposed to a term that names a birth cohort (like Generation X or Millennial Generation). Where it makes sense to apply a kinship term to recent immigrants, whose citizenship/residency is determined along family lines, it makes little sense to limit the sphere of identification for the “first-generation college student” to a family whose distinguishing characteristic is its lack of academic credentials.

To call students who are the first in their families to attend college “first-generation” is to limit them to a familial narrative, to isolate them from identification with a larger cohort group, whose sheer numbers might offer a source of stability and validity, if not also negotiating power.

Maybe we should start calling students who are the first in their families to attend college members of “Generation 1.” Maybe that use of generation, to identify an enrollment cohort and not a kinship status, would foster the meaningful solidarity whose absence from Jim the recruiter’s self-perception caused him to so sloppily, ethnocentrically, force himself onto Changez.


[1] The term “first-generation college student” came into popular use in the 1990s, following the 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study and the many follow-up studies conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). First loosely defined as a student who is the first in his family to have gone to college and earned a credential, the term was more officially (and more narrowly) defined in a 1998 NCES analysis as an undergraduate “whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education.”


2 thoughts on ““The First-Generation Fallacy””

  1. I think your key point here is a really smart one. It seems, for example that the relative advantages and disadvantages of being a “first generation college student” and a “first generation educated in the U.S.” might in fact be opposite, the former often having grown up in households without a lot of emphasis on education or a lot of books, but plenty of education in American culture, hierarchies, and so on; while the latter may have little practical sense of American culture but a huge advantage in terms of knowing how to do school. I love the idea of coming up with an alternative term that would “identify an enrollment cohort and not a kinship status,” but I wonder if it might not be better to get away from the word “generation” all together–which, I think, is so much more commonly thought of as signaling kinship rather than birth cohorts. I don’t know what a better alternative term would be, yet, but it seems worth considering.

  2. I agree. Though the advantage (I suppose) of thinking of cohort groups in terms “generations” is that that paradigm marks commonalities according to criteria that span race/class/gender lines, the disadvantage is that it conflates too much with other uses of generation. One is born into a generation, how can s/he enroll into a secondary generation? For some reason, though (and I don’t know why), I’m reluctant to drop the term and thus lose the parallel between birth and enrollment.

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