Alumni share challenges, benefits of being first-generation students

Washington and Lee celebrates students that were the first in their family to attend college


Emma Malinak

Sam Masser, ‘23, an executive member of LIFT, moderates the conversation as Kapasi, Norwood, Karlson and Youngman (left to right) share stories from their time as students at W&L.

Emma Malinak, A&L Editor

Washington and Lee recognized the National First-Generation College Celebration on Nov. 8 with a full day of programming that culminated in an alumni panel. 

The alumni gave a transparent account of what it was like to be a first-generation (first-gen), low-income student at Washington and Lee and discussed the struggles and obstacles they faced. 

“There are a lot of traps if you’re first-gen,” Provost Paul Youngman, ‘87, said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Youngman and other first-gen alumni Brittany Norwood, ‘16,  Randy Karlson, ‘16, and Murtaza Kapasi, ‘16, shared their experiences of being the first members of their families to attend college. They agreed that there were many aspects of college that caught them by surprise.

The alumni said that, after coming from low-income families, they found it hard to find a sense of belonging on campus.

“I tried so hard to fit in,” Karlson said. “I kept trying to fight to be someone else and to fit in with these people.” 

Karlson said he remembers saving money to buy new khaki shorts and off-brand polos to hide the fact that his family didn’t have as much money as his peers’ families. He recalled how it was embarrassing when he couldn’t “swipe it home” at dining venues or the university store.

Kapasi also said he remembers saving money to buy clothing items, especially his first pair of Sperry shoes, that he thought would help him fit in. 

The elite culture at Washington and Lee was also a culture shock for Youngman. 

“I had never been surrounded by that many wealthy people. I didn’t even know kids had BMWs of their own,” Youngman said. 

The alumni shared that they felt there was a stigma associated with being a first-gen student, and as a result, they tried to hide their story during their time on campus. Karlson and Kapasi said that even though they were close friends by their graduation in 2016, neither of them knew the other was a first-gen student until they were both asked to be a part of the panel this year. 

The prevalence of Greek life on campus was also a challenge for the speakers on the panel. They agreed that while Greek life originally seemed like a good way to find community on campus, it was financially inaccessible and made them feel more excluded. Karlson had to drop his affiliation because he could not afford the membership fees, and Youngman remembers feeling embarrassed when asking his fraternity brothers to have his monthly fees reduced. 

Norwood decided to stay in her sorority, but she said it was a financial burden. 

“I was so desperate to fit in that I ate the loans and went through the process,” she said. 

The alumni said that despite the challenges they faced, they were grateful for the self-growth they experienced in college. All four speakers on the panel are now working in higher education, and they agreed that their experiences as first-gen students inspired them to help others like them. 

“I owe my career to being a first-generation student,” Karlson said.

Karlson has worked at Washington and Lee and Long Island University, and is now a director of higher education research at Hanover Research. The other three speakers currently work at Washington and Lee: Kapasi is an admissions officer, Youngman is the associate provost and a German professor, and Norwood is a visiting assistant professor and research services librarian.

Norwood said she is happy to see how many more resources Washington and Lee has established for first-gen students since she graduated.

“I see a lot of change that is moving in the right direction,” Norwood said.

The panel discussed their support of many of the university’s recent advancements, including:

  • First-year education programs that introduce students to the resources and opportunities available on campus
  • The food pantry and clothes closet in Elrod Commons that provide aid
  • The Low-Income First Generation Team (LIFT) organization that supports first-gen students
  • Programming from the Office of Inclusion and Engagement, such as the National First-Generation College Celebration, which recognizes marginalized students and promotes conversations about diversity and equity

Nov. 8 was the date for the National First-Generation College Celebration to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The act was intended to help reduce discrimination against those from minority and low-income backgrounds. 

Washington and Lee recognized first-gen students by hosting a celebration in Commons, a student panel and the alumni panel. The student panel allowed current first-gen students to share their experiences and discuss the resources that they appreciate and the resources they wish they could have.

The alumni on the panel said they could relate to current first-gen students on many experiences, like learning how to study in a collegiate environment and feeling pressure to meet the expectations of parents.

“I was the first person in my family to go to college and that was to get a better life than my parents,” Karlson said. “I knew that I had to get a good job. I knew that I had to make my parents proud.”

The panel speakers encouraged students to not worry about what others think, to focus on one day at a time and to find a good balance between working hard and taking breaks.

Norwood said that students should not be afraid to take time in college to explore themselves, their interests and their possible career paths, even if that means making a few mistakes along the way. 

“Reframe the narrative,” Norwood said. “You’re not failing, you’re path-finding.”