Things My Mother Couldn’t Tell Me
Rebecca Wong and Alex Downie looked into the numerous challenges faced by students who are the first in their immediate family to attend university.
“In my first semester of uni, I was in amongst a group of people who were talking about school excursions. They’d been to Nice and they’d been to Paris. I told them that the excursions I remembered going on were to Cronulla beach and … a sewerage factory.”
Jena Ye, a Bachelor of Arts student, went to a low socioeconomic status (SES) public high school in Sydney’s South-West. Her mother is a labourer who works at a packaging firm, and her dad owns a small business selling clothes. Jena, like all students we interviewed for this article, is the first member of her immediate family to attend university.
Statistics on the participation of ‘first in family’ students at Sydney University are not publicly available; we contacted the University of Sydney administration but they were unable to provide us with any figures. However, the University is extremely unrepresentative: in 2012, only eight per cent of its domestic students came from a low SES background, a figure barely half the national average.
The first-generation students we spoke to characterised themselves as incredibly lucky. Some were extroverted enough to overcome the barriers to social participation at uni, exacerbated by the existence of elite private school networks. Some compensated for their lack of institutional knowledge and familial connections through hard work, motivated by financial pressures and the aspirations of migrant parents.
All came up against a system in which the odds were stacked against them. But that system was also a means of escape. As one student who grew up in regional Queensland told us, “I knew that my way to get out of there was to go to uni.”
Jena was self-motivated from an early age: “there was no expectation for me to go [to uni], but I showed a particular interest in education and in studying, and so my parents were like …. well, this one’s definitely going.”
To Jena’s parents, university was an opportunity to better her circumstances. “My parents … envision that if you have a university degree, then you’ll definitely succeed.”
Indeed, Jena had initially been planning to move to the UK on a working visa as early as possible after finishing her degree at the end of this year. However, her parents “really wanted to see me go through that whole graduation ceremony process, and that’s not until April. They want to know that I’ve gone through the Australian education system and see that I’ve made it through. It’s really important for them, and I knew that, so I decided ‘alright, I’ll save until I’m ready’. I mean, it’s the least I can do.”
Multiple students we spoke to stressed the cultural emphasis that their parents placed on education. As one student explained, “it’s that classic, I guess, ethnic mentality, where you’re only really successful if you become a doctor or whatever.”
For many parents, however, university was not only invaluable but also inscrutable. As another student commented: “people whose parents have already gone to uni have a pre-established idea of what uni actually is. Whereas I think ethnic minorities often feel that uni is so much bigger than it is. And often it’s quite a hard vision to fill for them.”
The University of Sydney’s student population is notoriously homogenous. The affluent North Shore and Eastern Suburbs hold less than 15 per cent of Sydney’s population, but in 2010 they were home to 65 per cent of the university’s student population.
It is sadly unsurprising that many first-generation students struggle to socially integrate. A student told us that when she first arrived at USyd, her network consisted of three vague acquaintances from high school, which she admits “wasn’t much of a support base”. “The rest took on apprenticeships in beauty and hair and stuff, which is quite a common trend for [my school].”
Max, a recent Bachelor of Arts graduate from Sydney’s North-West, told us that “I remember first semester of first year, just me chilling on the lawns with my free SMH, purely because I just didn’t know anyone. It was daunting, definitely.”
The predominance of rich, private school students within USU clubs and societies such as debating and Model UN is particularly discouraging for some. “I think the private school networks, everyone knows everyone, they have a very different approach to friendships,” says Max. “They’re much more mature than I was at 18 or 19, because I was just a kid from, you know, Dural.”
Unfortunately, this class-based exclusion sometimes extends into the classroom. As one student explained, “I think there’s also a presumption of the kinds of class backgrounds in the classroom as well. So in Law it’s really common for lecturers or other students to be like ‘people like us are very privileged’, and universalising an experience of how we all wound up in that classroom, when I don’t necessarily think there’s that much overlap in terms of our privileges.”
The rituals of networking and CV-stacking, and the necessary accumulation of social capital, seemed particularly daunting to most students we interviewed.
Gaming the system is foreign to Edward, who studies Arts/Law. He reflected that highly competitive avenues such as corporate law were probably closed to him because of his “inability to play the game”.
Circumstances prevented Nabila’s parents from fulfilling their aspirations to attend university; her mother was unable to complete the law degree she’d started in Lebanon.
“In terms of, for instance, internships and graduate opportunities… they can’t really guide me and tell me, ‘it’s that time in your degree where you should seriously be considering A B C’, simply because they don’t know about those things.” For first in family students, it isn’t just a matter of economic mobility; they are entering a world with codes they have not learned to read and rules they have not inherited.
Many students believed that their background had been a very significant disadvantage in one important respect; getting a job. As Michael, an Economics/Law student, explained: “There is no one I, or my family, can ask for employment advice. I have no connections I can exploit with any professional in any industry even remotely associated with my degree. I know lots of truck drivers, though.”
Michael watched nervously as his peers leveraged the parental connections he didn’t have into internships and jobs. “Sometimes their parents just straight-up get them a job at the company at which they work, sometimes their parents know someone who is willing to hire them and other times their parents know people in a company that is hiring who can give them advice as to exactly how to write the kind of resume that HR wants to read. This is without even mentioning all the jobs well-connected kids get that aren’t advertised that I don’t even know about.”
Opportunity breeds opportunity, and Michael worries that this initial disadvantage will affect his prospects after graduation: “the more internships I apply for and fail to get, I feel like I’m falling further and further behind other students who, one day, will become my competitors for grad jobs”.
Even those from wealthier backgrounds felt that a lack of family know-how had affected their employability. Max, whose parents work in software infrastructure and university administration, told us how he “had no expectation, no idea even what to do at uni. I wish that I’d known that Sociology 1001 was really important, that I shouldn’t have gotten just a pass because it would hurt my WAM. I didn’t know what those things meant, and how they translated to post-uni life.”
The University of Sydney does not offer specialised support to first-generation students.
The University has made an increasing effort to recruit and support students from low-SES backgrounds, expanding programs such as the Early Offer Year 12 (e12) scheme, which offers ATAR discounts and scholarships to low-SES students.
But once at university, students often struggle to access the support services that are available. For instance, the University offers bursaries to students in urgent need of financial support. However, as Edward observed, “to qualify for a bursary, you have to have passed all your subjects the previous semester or year. I’ve been in a position where I failed subjects due to health issues, and it was difficult to be told that [I wasn’t] able to be given financial assistance in the form of a bursary because of those marks. I find that quite bizarre, because I think the people who most need financial assistance are probably those who are struggling academically.”
Student experiences also varied widely between faculties. Edward found the Law faculty to be “pretty bad” and inflexible at handling students dealing with mental health and family issues. “I find that at certain times it’s kind of like ‘well bad luck’. I’ve never really understood why the Law faculty is so bad at student support. I’ve been at UNSW for a couple of subjects before, and I found their Law faculty to be amazing. They bend over backwards to try and ensure that you can complete your degree, or to get you through a semester.”
Nabila, mentioned above, studied Science for two years before transferring to Arts. She found that the Science faculty were “not very supportive whatsoever”. “I went to see a careers advisor from the Science faculty and she looked at me, looked down at me, and was like, ‘are you sure you wouldn’t just be better suited to something like an Arts degree?’ as if it was something lesser.” By contrast, “the Arts faculty people have been very supportive …. you can sit down and have a conversation with them [the academics]”.
The Department of History is in the process of launching ‘First in Family’, a support network that aims to connect students whose parents did not attend university so that they can meet, socialise, support each other and perhaps find cooperative ways of addressing common challenges.
The network, which emerged out of informal discussions between academics, is currently being championed by Undergraduate History student representative Ashleigh Taylor, the first student to undertake this role. Ashleigh, who is the first in her family to attend university, explained to Honi that the network is trying to recruit students from the Arts faculty, with a view to eventually branching out to the broader university.
Michael chose to study General Maths for his HSC. The teachers at his small Catholic high school in Sydney’s north-west told him that “we weren’t good enough, and that we’d struggle if we did 2-unit.” It wasn’t until Orientation Day that Michael realised he hadn’t studied sufficient mathematics for his Economics degree.
Michael spent the rest of his holiday teaching himself the entire 2-unit preliminary and HSC syllabus. “I borrowed all the prelim & HSC textbooks from a mate that did 4-unit and got to work. I taught myself everything … from trig, to geometry to calculus. Before this, I didn’t even know what a derivative or integral was. To this day, I don’t understand logarithms because I didn’t understand the textbooks.”
Last year, Michael graduated from his Economics degree with First Class Honours, and he recently landed his first professional job. “I would love to see networking events where employers specifically look to recruit students like me,” he told Honi. He wants them to know that “our lack of experience is the result of institutional factors beyond our control, and not a blight on us as people”.
Interested in joining the First in Family Network?