CHC first-generation students succeed despite the barriers they face in higher education
Some first-generation college students grew up without means. Some are students of color and struggle to find role models who look like them on campus. Still others are children of immigrants who came to the United States to improve their lives but face hidden barriers. And there are many others at Clark Honors College, the UO and beyond whose parents didn’t go to college – the textbook definition of what it means to be “first-gen.”
Regardless, first-gen students share a common thread: They face myriad challenges when they arrive that many of their peers don’t have to contend with as they pursue college degrees.
Identifying supportive faculty members, staying on track with coursework, getting advice about the right classes, and pushing away feelings of not belonging are part of their every-day struggle. From the time they start thinking about college to the time they graduate, first-gen students navigate university life through a combination of savviness, luck, fear, intelligence and instinct.
These stories are about some of the first-gen students who call Clark Honors College home.
—By David Austin, Clark Honors College Communications
Position: Acting Dean of Clark Honors College
B.A.: English, Mt. Holyoke College
PhD: English, Brown University
Research areas: Media history; gender, race, and class in media; Cold War television and the FBI; feminist media and digital publishing
Carol Stabile, the acting dean of the Clark Honors College, shakes her head and laughs when she recalls how she escaped her childhood and made it to college.
Her father was a truck driver who didn’t get past second grade and bought a Western-themed amusement park in New Jersey to support the family. Her mother finished high school but never attended college.
Stabile’s parents insisted that all their children would go to college. But they wanted her to go to a nearby community college, get a business degree, and come back home to run the family business.
“I always knew I was going to go to college,” she says now. “I was a bookworm. I loved school. It was a haven for me. But I had no idea how to get there. I had parents who had no experience with college, so I had to do it myself. There was no way I was going to spend the rest of my life in an amusement park. No way.”
She remembers the moment things came into focus for her. Her brother, who was a film student at the time, was making a movie at the amusement park. His makeshift film crew was at Stabile’s house and one of the members saw her PSAT scores that had just arrived sitting on a table.
“She looked at them and then looked at me and said: ‘Where are you going to go to college? With these scores, you can go wherever you want,’” she recalls. “I had no idea, so the crew sat there and came up with a list of 10 places where they said I should apply.”
Stabile remembers writing letters of interest to the schools. After she received material in the mail, she made her choice: Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she would major in English.
“Like a lot of students in my situation, I made the decision not based on what was the best school, but on which one gave me the most support,” she recalls.
When she arrived for her first term, she realized how difficult it was because of her lack of exposure to higher education.
“I’ll never forget going there and feeling so adrift,” she says. “There were a lot of rich kids there and I didn’t understand wealth and how things worked. I didn’t understand any of the rules about going to college. I had to make them up myself as I went along. It was really hard.”
She felt out of place in some ways and traveled home nearly every weekend in her first year. “Being at home wasn’t great, but at least there I understood the rules,” she recalls. “Being in college for me was like going to another country and not knowing the language.”
But she eventually buckled down and went all in. “I told myself: ‘I am going to do this,’” she says, noting that she finished in four years because “this was my way out. If I didn’t take charge and figure out how to survive college, I was going to be stuck in a family business that was always in debt.”
She remembers meeting other first-gen students who struggled academically because they didn’t have the same access to things that wealthier students had. “We all hung out together and you could see how unfair it was sometimes, not having that knowledge of how college worked,” she recalls.
Stabile stayed focused. She dove into her English and theater classes, and she found a way to thrive. She met regularly with her professors, learning on the fly how to navigate her way through her undergraduate years. She kept her grades up. And she started looking toward the future.
“As a first-gen student, you start to get a glimpse of what that future might look like,” Stabile says. “What kept me going? I loved to read and I loved to learn. I was so curious about everything. I felt like there were all these people who knew things I didn’t know. And I wanted to know things, too. I wanted to learn how to think and be able to support myself.”
After graduating from Mt. Holyoke, Stabile went to Brown for graduate school. She received her post doc at University of Illinois before going on to the University of Pittsburgh to teach English.
She came to UO in 2008, working as a professor and an administrator. In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, she was named acting dean of the Honors College.
Her advice to first-gen students? Find mentors who are also first in their families to attend college. “They can help you navigate the system,” she says. “They will make it transparent to you.”
She also suggests that first-gen students understand that they are not alone. Ask for help when you need it, she says. “People are here to help you succeed.”
Finally, Stabile says it’s important to be strong. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this because you can. I always thought about that, whenever things were difficult. I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life trapped inside a Western.”
—By David Austin, Clark Honors College Communications