August 28, 2022

SWASING | First-generation: More than Just the First to College

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When I was very young, my mom used to take me garage-saling in the wealthier neighborhoods. She would show me the big houses, the beautifully landscaped yards and the in-ground pools. She would explain to me that the people that lived in these houses were people who went to college and got good jobs — specifically, they were doctors and lawyers. More importantly, she made it clear to me that I could be one of those people, even though my parents hadn’t been. So, I always knew I was going to college. Partly because of my mom’s encouragement, and partly because I was made for college. I liked school, I did well and I earned good grades. Education was part of the values I was raised on and part of who I was. 

Until I was accepted to Cornell, I had never considered myself to be a first-generation college student. It wasn’t something that I cared about or thought mattered. My mom, regardless of her level of education, is the strongest woman I know and was the one who had always supported my education. She went with me on college tours and proof-read every application essay I submitted. I never felt at a disadvantage. 

In my first couple of years at Cornell, however, I developed an identity as a first-generation student. I learned about the unique challenges that we are presented with as first-generation students, and I gained an increased sense of pride in my Ivy League education. 

One of the first challenges I faced as a first-generation student is knowing what a typical college schedule even looks like. I have bittersweet memories of my first pre-enroll, emailing back and forth with my advisor about what a normal college schedule looked like, realizing very quickly it was much different than the standard 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. school day in high school. No one had ever told me how different college life would look from that of high school, and I didn’t know many people in college, so it came as quite a shock to me that I wouldn’t be in class all day every day. Something so simple was so confusing for me because I had no one’s footsteps to follow in. This was followed by a sharp learning curve on what it actually looks like to be a college student on the day to day. What do I do with the time I’m not in class? How does a meal plan work? Is the only chance at a social life the kind of college parties you see in movies? What on Earth is Greek life?

Club fest and formal class presentations brought another shock. Apparently, everyone but me already had a whole professional wardrobe, ready for interviews and snappy headshots. All I had were a couple pairs of dress pants that didn’t fit right, left over from middle and high school band concert days. And LinkedIn? Never heard of it. I quickly realized I was unprepared for the world of networking and professionalism that I had entered. I had to jump on the learning train quickly or risk getting left behind at the station. My first professional wardrobe finally came this summer, and it was all supplied from the second-hand store in my hometown, in preparation for my first internship (a concept that was completely foreign to me two years ago). 

Graduate school is a whole ‘nother ball game. If you thought I wasn’t prepared for the world of college, it might not surprise you to hear how much time I have spent on my own figuring out what it takes to apply to and get into law school. LSATS, interviews, undergraduate majors, T-14s, big law and more. Some of my peers have two parents and an older sibling who have all been to law school before them. I have Google, an iron will and a mom who loves and supports me no matter what. 

And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Being a first-generation student at Cornell has been one of the best experiences of my life. I have learned about myself and grown as an individual in an environment where I am able to thrive. Did I have it as easy as the students who were raised in the world of higher education and higher income brackets? No, but I would choose my life and my experiences a thousand times over. 

Halle Swasing ‘24 (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].  Goes Without Swasing runs every other Sunday this semester.