Q & A with the iSchool’s First Generation Student Group
Published: February 20, 2023 by Kesheena Doctor
As a first-generation student, I found grad school to be tricky to navigate, even at the iSchool. However, I found the SJSU iSchool’s First Generation Student Group and received support in my first year. Formed in 2017, the First Gen Student Group aims to help MLIS students network and build bonds to help them succeed. I chatted with the group’s Chair, Laura Garand, and the group’s Blog Editor, Samantha Harteau, about the group, its mission and goals.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Who is the FGSG group for? What does it mean to be first-gen?
Samantha: Anyone! Being a first-generation student means something different for everyone. One can identify as a first-generation student if they see themselves as the first in their immediate family, extended family, friend group, or many other reasons.
Laura: I am the first member in my entire extended family to pursue an undergrad and now a master’s degree, but others are the first on their mother’s side of the family etc. We want to be inclusive to anyone who hasn’t had the support that can come with parents who attended university and can answer questions about their experience.
What type of barriers do First-Gen students have, particularly in a Master’s program like MLIS?
Samantha: Barriers can start at not understanding the importance of school or not receiving the needed support. Many first-gen students feel isolated in their families and/or friend groups because often they are the only ones in the group who are pursuing a higher education and have a passion for school. A common response for first-gen students for entering a Master’s program is disbelief that they’d want to continue college. “Didn’t you already go to college? Why do you need to go again?”
Feeling lost on how and where to begin in the college world and beyond is also a huge barrier. Imposter syndrome is also one of the biggest barriers for first-gen students. Constant comparisons to others, feeling not good enough, stressing over needing to be perfect, and seeking external validation are all signs of imposter syndrome.
Laura: FGSG students often have to figure so many things out for themselves – we call this “the hidden curriculum” as first-gens often have to navigate an entirely new experience without being able to rely on parents or older family members to be able to give them advice. First-gens can face day-to-day barriers that seem small, like being able to speak with your parents about courses you’re taking, or get their opinions about which extra-curricular activities would be best suited to your career goals. Other barriers can be much more prevalent and obvious, like having to go against the wishes of your family by pursuing education, which can be incredibly isolating, especially when you’re also in a new environment.
In a program like iSchool, not only are first gens going through a new experience academically, but for those of us enrolled in the program remotely, it can be even more isolated, and even harder to seek out the resources that may be required, because we often don’t know where to start, and not being on campus makes it hard just “roam around” and figure out where certain things are, or meet peers who may know some of the answers. This is where we hope to be beneficial for first gens – we may not have the answer immediately, but we will certainly do our best to find the answers to your questions, or point you in the direction of someone who can!
What type of programming does the FGSG group provide for members?
Laura: We hold a Coffee and Chat meeting once a month, with one month each term being replaced without a general meeting, where we interview First-gen faculty about their experiences! We are currently working on setting up some type of channel for our members to communicate informally between meetings, and will keep you posted about the progress on that!
Samantha: Currently, at our Coffee and Chat events we are discussing a new chapter from The Hidden Curriculum by Rachel Gable.
How have you benefited from the FGSG group? Were there any specific experiences that impacted your increased involvement in the group?
Laura: I actually only heard about the group when I got the blast about positions on the leadership team being open. I liked the idea of the group, and being in a remote program, really wanted the chance to engage with my peers on more than a purely academic level, so I applied for the secretary position. After about a month or so, the Chair position was still open, and I was really excited about being part of the team, and meeting new people, so with the rest of the group’s support, I stepped into the Chair position!
Samantha: Having a community to confide with when I’m stuck or want to share an accomplishment is wonderful. There have been moments I have been frustrated in a class and feel down on myself for not understanding the materials. I’ve talked with the first-gen group before if they had similar experiences or if they can help me out. It’s nice to be able to ask a community with similar struggles if I’m the only one who feels lost in a certain topic (almost always I’m not) and how others navigated and overcame the issue.
Samantha, I read the FGSG blog and saw many famous first-gen students, including Michelle Obama and SJSU iSchool Director, Dr. Anthony Chow. Do you find comfort in knowing that such successful and accomplished people are first-gen?
Samantha: Absolutely. It’s wonderful to learn about so many inspirational individuals who came from all different walks of life and the trials that came with those. I read Michelle Obama’s memoir and loved connecting with her stories about navigating college and beyond. Having those reminders that I’m not alone when feeling lost in college and my profession is comforting.
Laura, what has been your experience as Chair?
Laura: I have enjoyed being chair. The time commitment is fair, and I’m very fond of our team! It’s been a great experience to collaborate with the team and Dr. Bernier and get to know some of the faces from other student groups. It has also been a good experience for learning to work collaboratively and delegate tasks in a leadership position – and being able to use the experience for my e-portfolio is a bonus as well!
Reviewing the blog, I saw a Chair Understudy position a few semesters ago. If an FGSG group member had an interest, would the program be brought back?
Laura: Yes, absolutely! We had previously had understudy positions for all of the leadership team roles, to help the transition process when a leadership team member graduates or steps down from their position. We would gladly take on an understudy in any of our positions if the interest was there, we are just currently focusing our energy in other places, and put advertising the understudy program on hiatus for a while.
What advice do you have for other iSchool First-Gen students?
Samantha: Find a community or group of people who can support you. Having support is so important when struggling as a first-gen student. It’s hard to accept and face those trials, but knowing that you have support from people who love and care about you and actively want to see you succeed is an important motivator to keep pushing forward. I know I need to take a step back and remind myself of my motivating supporters (my furry friends included) when I’m feeling stuck and alone.
Laura: So many of us seem to feel like we’re not good enough or don’t belong here…it’s NOT TRUE! We have all worked our way here, the same as everyone else, and we deserve our spots! Also, don’t be afraid to ask peers for advice, and don’t be shy to share your experiences with others who may ask questions to you.
Samantha is pursuing her MLIS degree and anticipates graduating in May 2023. Laura is pursuing her MLIS degree and anticipates graduating in May 2024.