Defining Safe: Generational differences, experiential similarities: The Northwestern first-gen and second-gen student experiences

Noraan Mohamed, Reporter



MARIA: And seeing the hardships that your parents went through, you really just want to make them proud, as well as be successful for yourself and just be able to support yourself, as well as support them throughout your journey.

NORAAN MOHAMED: That was Maria, a first-generation student at Northwestern. First- and second-generation students tend to see their college experiences differently from other students on campus. But how do they define their experiences on campus? And what does community-building look like for them? 


NORAAN MOHAMED: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Noraan Mohamed. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at Northwestern and in the Evanston community. In this episode, we’re discussing the first- and second-generation communities on NU’s campus and their experiences — both at the University and with their peers. Some names in this episode have been changed for privacy reasons. 


NORAAN MOHAMED: Being a first- or second-generation student can be a confusing concept. Erin Kimura-Walsh is the director of the LEAD Scholars program at Santa Clara University, a program that works to help first-generation college students navigate their college experiences. I asked her what it means to be a first-generation student. 

ERIN KIMURA-WALSH: “First-generation college student” really means someone whose parents or guardians did not graduate from a four-year college or university. There might be other definitions that are “did not attend a four-year college or university.” There’s a lot of variation depending on (an) institution and how they define it. But really, it’s centered around the educational experiences, and whether they had parents who attended and/or graduated from a four-year college or university.

NORAAN MOHAMED: There can also be an overlap between those who identify as first-generation students and those who identify as first-generation immigrants. According to Kimura-Walsh, first-generation immigrant status varies from culture to culture. The U.S. Census Bureau defines first-generation immigrants as those who were born in a country other than the U.S. For the sake of this podcast, “first-generation” and “second-generation” refer to parents’ education statuses.

NORAAN MOHAMED: First-generation student and Medill first-year Elshadai Aberra said their family moved to the U.S. looking for a better life.

ELSHADAI ABERRA: My mom has always told me that she’s always seen herself in America. She’s also told me that she’s always wanted to raise her kids here. She’s never seen herself raising a family in Ethiopia.

NORAAN MOHAMED: Every family immigrates for different reasons. But students said their family members expect success from them as one of the first — if not the first — to attend college. At a school like NU, the pressure can be extremely difficult.

ELSHADAI ABERRA: It’s really hard to be a firstborn immigrant daughter of a family that’s going to university. There’s some things that are just really hard for me, and I’m held to a different standard because I am first-gen.

NORAAN MOHAMED: But beyond family expectations, being one of the first in your family to go to college can also create a sense of community. Elshadai and Maria said they can connect with other first-gen students over their shared experiences. Elshadai said it helped her relate with her second-generation friends, too. 

ELSHADAI ABERRA: One of my closest friends here, she’s also an Ethiopian. She’s second-gen, but we still relate in a lot of ways. And it’s crazy because we grew up very differently, but there’s things that we understand about each other that I feel like other people have not really understood.

NORAAN MOHAMED: Mairi Glynn, a McCormick junior, is a second-generation student. While her great grandparents were the first of her family to immigrate to the U.S., her parents were the first in her family to go to college.

MAIRI GLYNN: My great grandparents were born colonized in Ireland. Essentially, they all left before the revolution because there was a lot of increasing tension, shall we say? And then my grandparents were, they were brought up in The Depression and World War II, so they didn’t go to college because it wasn’t something they really thought they needed.

NORAAN MOHAMED: Having extended family who have recently immigrated to the U.S. has helped Mairi connect with her parents. While they might not always understand her, they can relate to her educational struggles.

MAIRI GLYNN: I just think there’s kind of a common experience of generational trauma that I think we all connect on in some ways.

NORAAN MOHAMED: Students agreed that, regardless of generation, shared experiences are what bring them closer to their peers. 

MARIA: I feel like, for me, when I meet someone, I talk to them about certain experiences and things that we have been through, not necessarily asking if you’re specifically first-generation or second-generation. 

NORAAN MOHAMED: Kimura-Walsh said additional privileges come with each coming generation for students. 

ERIN KIMURA-WALSH: I do see, kind of, this idea of increasing number of opportunities available to each generation. So I think that kind of comes to mind when I think about second-gen versus first-gen students.

NORAAN MOHAMED: Students also agreed that there are definitely some differences between the first- and second-gen students. Elshadai said the biggest difference is the relationship between students and their parents.

ELSHADAI ABERRA: My kids would be second-gen, right. And I feel like in that case, that’s like a huge difference for what my kids’ experience would be. There are a lot of things about my identity that they just don’t understand at all because growing up in Ethiopia, they just were not exposed to that and there are things that I can’t talk about with them. But I feel like to be a second-gen, to have parents that did go to college here, or even just spent time here before having their children, is a huge difference because there’s American ideologies and societal things that they’re exposed to. 

NORAAN MOHAMED: Mairi said the main difference between the two generations is the resources the University offers them. As first- and second-generation students navigate their relationships with NU’s campus while enduring other obstacles that come with being one of the first in their family to attend college, Mairi said help from the University should be a given for both groups.

MAIRI GLYNN: There are a lot of resources for first-generation and low-income students — and I’m not trying to say that they don’t deserve it. They deserve more resources than they already have, most definitely. But there really aren’t resources for second-generation students, which can be kind of a weird thing. 

NORAAN MOHAMED: NU has some support set up for first-gen students, like career resources for first-generation and low-income students, but many students say these resources aren’t enough. At some universities, resources go further than advising — they specifically focus on additional ways to help first-gen students navigate university life, such as additional mentorship, targeted early instruction and explorational courses. Kimura-Walsh said the University is often to blame for the way first-gen students’ struggles are disregarded.

ERIN KIMURA-WALSH: I think it’s always important to point out, a lot of these are institutionally imposed challenges, right? And the way that our institutions are structured, again, not really centered around the experience of our marginalized students,that these challenges are created for our students. 

NORAAN MOHAMED: Both Elshadai and Mairi agreed that their respective generations don’t receive enough support from the University. 

ELSHADAI ABERRA: I don’t think there’s many people that have expertise in dealing with first-gen or immigrant students. And I don’t know, I just think faculty could be more caring and educated. 

NORAAN MOHAMED: Maria said she finds herself disappointed with NU’s efforts in advertising the resources that are available.

MARIA: I think the school does provide some resources to assist us and to help us throughout our journey here. I feel like a lot of the resources, once you find them they’re good, but it’s kind of hard to find them. 

NORAAN MOHAMED: Being a first-gen or second-gen student definitely isn’t easy. But finding a community on campus with people you can relate to on a deeper cultural level is something students love about their generational identities.

MARIA: Honestly, I was able to meet a lot more first-gen students than I expected. So actually, I’d say it did help me find new friends. Finding that community, I think, really made college life just a lot easier to adjust to. 


NORAAN MOHAMED: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Noraan Mohamed. Thank you for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lucia Barnum, the digital managing editors are Will Clark and Katrina Pham and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected] 

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