Literacy Narrative of First Generation College Student: Understanding the Diversity of Your Students as an Educator

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Photo Credit: Marina Ballesteros.

“…the issue of literacy and power does not begin and end with the process of learning how to read and write critically…to be able to name one’s experience is part of what it meant to ‘read’ the world and to begin to understand the political nature of the limits and possibilities that make up the larger society” (p.7).

-As stated by Henry A. Girous in the Introduction of Paulo Freire’s Literacy: Reading the Word and the World

I first read this quote in a course called “Teaching Writing K-12”. I am studying to be an elementary school teacher, so it is no surprise that I was asked to read Paulo Freire in a course about writing and literacy. Freire is known for his educational theories, especially his concept of Emancipatory Literacy. He believes that language is used as tool for the dominant groups to maintain their power. Admittedly, I read Literacy: Reading the Word and the World because it was assigned for the course.

“Why am I reading this book? It is sooooo boring. I wish we just had to read our other textbook with pictures of kids in their classrooms. That is so much more related to what we will be doing in the classroom,” I would tell my classmates. Looking back on my thoughts like this makes me embarrassed. Freire’s text caused me to critically think about myself and the world around me. While it was a difficult read, I now understand why educators read his works. For my class, we would have to engage with Freire’s text in a Socratic Seminar, so I would always try to prepare personal examples for class. But when I reflected on Freire’s notion of literacy being a tool for dominant groups to retain power, this concept felt too distanced and philosophical to find a personal example. Only recently I was able to do this.

3 years ago…

“Mom, what should I write about? Do you have any ideas?” I whined to my Mother.

“No. It is your college application essay, not mine! You have to figure it out,” she lectured.

“Grandma, do you have any ideas?” I begged.

“Hmmmm. Maybe you can write about moving houses? Or when you volunteered? I think that would be a great idea” she excitedly responded.

After I went through all of my family members asking them what I should write about, I realized they would be of no help to me. What could I possibly write about for my college application essay? What story could I write that would make colleges want to accept me? Sure, I had good grades and extra curricular activities, but I have never had to write something like this. I could not have any more pressure on myself ! I needed help.

Finally, after what seemed like weeks, I decided that I would write about the diagnosis of my heart condition. As I sat down to write the essay, I found myself engulfed with emotions. Tears were streaming down my face. Not only was I reliving ever moment of that scary event, but I found myself gaining a new sense of peace. As I wrote, I found it to be therapeutic. In that moment, I not only understood and came to terms with my identity as a heart patient, but also realized for the first time that I am a writer. Writing my personal statement was essential in my literacy story because it was a turning point with my relationship with writing.

But after writing my essay I needed someone to edit it. After all, this would be a judge of my writing, character, and self as a student. I turned to my Mom for help again.

“Mom can you read over my essay?” She took the paper and read it.

“Wow honey, looks great. Good job,” she said as she handed it back to me. Once again I had to ask Grandma.

Unlike my mom, Grandma handed back the essay with red ink all over it. “Here doll, I made some edits, but it was a fantastic story,” she said trying to make all of her corrections not seem so bad. I could not understand how she could make so many corrections; I checked my grammar and spelling so many times. But when I looked at what she did, I realized she had completely rewrote many of my sentences. I quickly realized I was in a complicated situation.

In the end, I turned to my junior year English teacher for help and felt confident when I submitted it. Looking back, that personal statement was so difficult to write because of my identity as a first generation college student. When I decided it was time to start writing, it was very difficult for me to come up with a topic and know how to write it. I had never done anything like it before. I was completely lost. I turned to my family for help, but they couldn’t. I now understand that I struggled because no one in my family went to college. I am not saying that you have to go to college to understand how to edit a paper, but I am saying that my family was illiterate to the trials and tribulations of college. None of them ever had to write for a college application or help anyone with theirs. So it makes sense that they had NO idea how to help me. They did not want to let me down by admitting they did not know how to help me.

As my time in college started and progressed, I quickly realized that my identity as a first generation college student meant more than my family not knowing how to help me write a college application. I was also illiterate to the culture, customs, process, and language of college. I knew nothing about dorm life, what Greek life was, what office hours were, and how to act and speak in this foreign environment. While I was literate in the sense that I could read and write, I was illiterate about college. Literacy is more than just knowing how to read and write, it is about knowing the culture and customs of the environment around you. Going into college was the first time in my life that I felt illiterate. Even though it took me a while to make the connection to the Freire text, I am now able to see the true definition of literacy that Freire was talking about. Because I had grown up in an environment where no one in my family went to a four-year university, I was never able to become literate in the college language and customs. Once I entered the world of a university, I was unable to “read the world” around me.

“So what is the point of telling that story,” you may ask?

I told that story because it was essential in my realization of my identity as a first generation college student. Being part of the culture of a first generation student, I realized that I am part of a diverse, unique, and sometimes marginalized population. It was also a pivotal experience where I realized that I was literate in one sense, but I was illiterate to the new world around me. Without doing a full report on Freire’s theories on literacy, he believed that being literate meant understanding the world around you. You need to be able to do this in order to break the barriers keeping the dominant class in power. Freire argued,

“it is through the native language that students ‘name their world’ and begin to establish a dialectical relationship with the dominant class in the process of transforming the social and political structures that imprison them in their ‘culture of silence’” (Freire, 1987 ,p. 159). 

According to Freire’s principles, my illiteracy in the world of college was created because the dominant culture of college-educated people suppress those whom have never attended college. My family never attended college and was not literate in the college world. Therefore, I was never taught taught the language of college. This idea of language, literacy, and power reminded me of the reading I recently completed for my college course, “Writing Diverse Cultures”. Written by Linda Alcoff, The Problem of Speaking for Others relates to this concept of power and literacy. Alcoff’s argues,

“the practice of speaking for others is often born of a desire for mastery, to privilege oneself as the one who more correctly understands the truth about another’s situation or as one who can champion a just cause and thus achieve glory and praise. And the effect of the practice of speaking for others is often…erasure and a reinscription of sexual, national, and other kinds of hierarchies” (Alcoff 1991-1992).

Alcoff argues that people speak for others and resultantly put themselves in a dominant position over the people they are speaking for. This is exactly what Freire says is created with the language and culture of the dominant class. He discusses the importance of an Emancipatory Literacy program in schools to fix this problem. That program would allow for the suppressed groups be taught the language of the dominant culture in their native language so they can speak for themselves and break down the oppressive dominant classes. In my situation, it would have been more helpful for my high school to discuss the college process in a manner that did not assume everyone’s parents had gone to college and been more inclusive to the different types of parents.

Besides creating a relation between my literacy story to Freire and Alcoff, I situate this literacy narrative as a letter of hope to first generation college students and to bring awareness to educators of the types of students in their classrooms. My goal is to create awareness of struggle first generation students go through getting, staying, and succeeding in college. As Freire stated, is it difficult to learn the language of the dominant culture (college) in order to know the world around you, (the culture and customs of college), in order to successfully navigate it. Although you have to overcome the challenges of other speaking for you (like universities somehow understanding how we feel as first generation students), I am able to sit here and let you know it is possible. It will not be an easy transition, but being the first in your family to go to college shows your tremendous courage, strength, and determination. I am here to tell you as a fellow first generation college student, your family may never be able to relate to the struggles of taking six classes, being in 4 clubs, getting internships, having a social life, and taking care of yourself. But there are others around you that are there to help you. You already found the courage to go to college, so once you are there, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who are there to help you, that were once in your shoes, and are willing to speak your native language. Educators, I call on you to be aware of the diverse students in your classroom and to be a resource and help them the best that you can.


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