First, let’s define “first-generation students” and “international students.”
Being a “first-generation student” literally means you are the first person in your family to attend a college or university. If a college or scholarship application asks you this question, this is how they are probably defining the term.
However, this definition isn’t always fair. For example, what if your father graduated from a university, but he has been out of your life since you were five years old? Technically, you would be at least a “second-generation student.” Even so, if your father never gave you any advice about how to apply to college or told you any stories about his time on campus, you would feel like a “first-generation student,” right? Similarly, what if you have an older sister who went to college? She’s the same “generation” as you are biologically. Even if she helps you choose the best colleges to apply to, it seems strange that you would be “second-generation” at that point, right? Imagine if you had two younger siblings in that family. Would it make the youngest a “fourth-generation” student? I don’t think so. In addition, some people might include extended family, such as aunts and uncles, as well as cousins in their definition. If your aunt graduated from a university but neither of your parents did, are you first-generation or second-generation? Maybe you’re close with your aunt and she shares information with you, but maybe you’re not. What if you had a neighbor who really helped coach you into college? That neighbor isn’t your family, but you feel like a “second-generation student” with all the advice and knowledge they’ve given you. Do you see a theme emerging from these questions and scenarios? Instead of the standard definition, I would like to define a “first-generation student” as someone who doesn’t feel that they’ve ever had a higher education mentor and who does not have access to personal experiences connected to the type of college they will attend.
If we use this definition for “first-generation student,” then how might “international student” connect with it? What if you’re from a country outside the United States and your family has steadily attended and graduated from universities in your home country for the last 150 years, but you’re the first person in your family to attend college in the United States? What “generation” would you be? You’ve definitely had some “higher education mentors” among all of your educated family members, but none of them know what it’s like to study in the United States. In this case, I would like to consider you a “first-generation student.” But who qualifies as an “international student”?
Being an “international student” literally means you are attending a university in a foreign country using a student visa. If a college, scholarship, or financial aid application asks you this question, this is how they are probably defining the term.
However, this definition isn’t always fair either. For example, what if you and your family moved to California when you were sixteen, you established residency by living in the state for more than a year and by not planning to return home, and then you applied to college? Your situation would be very different from other “international students.” You would not be attending college on a student visa. You would pay in-state tuition as opposed to the very expensive tuition international students pay. You would have the ability to work while you attend school (depending on your family’s visa status) while international students are restricted from most off-campus work. In many ways, you’re not an “international student” because you don’t have the same kinds of stress: your family is living with you, you’ve made the United States your new “home” instead of just a place to temporarily study, and you don’t have to worry about what happens when your visa expires. However, you still might feel like an “international student” in other important ways. Linguistically, religiously, culturally, socially, experientially, you might not feel like a “domestic” student. Instead of the standard definition, I would like to define an “international student” as someone who has experience living in a foreign country, who calls more than one country “home,” and who brings that experience and that transnational identity to a college campus.
This book is for you, first-generation students and international students.
I considered adding the term “non-traditional students” to my focus, but I chose not to for a few reasons. Most importantly, I don’t think the term “non-traditional” is very useful anymore. “Non-traditional student” historically has meant someone who does not attend college right after high school and who does not fit the profile of most undergraduate students. This might mean the student is financially independent, is employed already, is married, has children, is a military veteran, is a formerly incarcerated person, and more. First-generation students are all non-traditional students, but not all non-traditional students are first-generation students. Some non-traditional students are well prepared to apply to college because they have had mentors and know what university life is about. If “non-traditional student” includes someone whose parents both went to college but who took two years off after high school to backpack and sail around the world on their own money, then I don’t think this book will be very necessary for them. But who knows? I hope it is, and I would be happy to know that this book helps as many people as possible.
I wrote this book because, for first-generation and international students especially, academia is confusing. Each college and university is different. Your school will have its own unique history, unique culture, and unique way of doing things. Similarly, every department is unique. Professors in your English department might teach, grade, and interact with students differently than professors in biology or professors in mechanical engineering. There is no way one book can imagine and explain all these differences. Instead, this book will serve as a guide to, an introduction to, and a welcome to the world of United States college and university life.
Inside, you will find facts and figures about this world of academia. You will also find personal narratives about this world, some my own and some from my colleagues and friends. Subsections include general explanations about general concepts and aspects of United States colleges and universities as well as questions for self-reflection and classroom discussion.
In this book, I use “college” to mean institutions where you study general topics and earn your first degrees. In my own experience, I graduated from Riverside City College in California where I took entry-level classes in many subjects such as English, mathematics, anthropology, geography, music, and more. You might also attend a “college” affiliated with a university, such as Barnard College in New York City. Barnard College has a partnership with Columbia University. Students at these two different schools can take classes at both campuses and even join in the other campus’ clubs and events. However, the two schools have different requirements for admission, different financial aid processes, and different student experiences.
I use “university” to mean institutions where you can earn not only your first degrees but also professional and graduate degrees. Riverside City College has no bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degrees; Barnard College has master’s degrees, but only through its partnership with Columbia University. However, the University of California and the University of Connecticut do offer all levels of degrees from bachelor’s through professional and graduate degrees.
This is not the most complete guide to United States colleges and universities. Instead, I wanted this to be concise and in language that is easy to understand for non-native English readers. The University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing has a free, very comprehensive digital title called College Success (2015) that includes sections on subjects such as listening strategies, note-taking, and preparing for tests that this book does not.