Shana Clarke

African American woman with yellow pants and flowery top standing by Penn State Nittany Lion Shrine.

What was it like being the first in your family to attend/graduate from college? 

Being the first in my family to attend college was exciting, confusing, scary and overwhelming. My high school did not prepare me as well as it should have for college; I felt the gap in my preparation acutely my freshman year.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a first-generation student and how did you overcome them?

  • Paying for college. I come from a working class family so while my family expected me to attend college, I was financially responsible for making that dream a reality. I used money from my federal work study job to pay for my books, food and plane tickets back and forth to school. I became an Resident Assistant (RA) to build leadership skills and lower my cost of attendance and I took student loans. Taking student loans was scary for me but I considered the loan an investment into my future. When you pay a mortgage, the house increases in value. When you get an education, that increases in value over time as well. That was my mentality.
  • My parents could not help me. As the first in my family to attend college, I knew that my parents could not help me navigate the challenges that I encountered in college. As such, I had to make connections with professionals at the university who understood how college worked to help me do what needed to be done when it needed to be done.
  • Being a minority student in a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). I come from Brooklyn, New York, which is very diverse in every way. Attending a PWI was a huge culture shock. I had never felt like a minority student prior to attending college. To help with that feeling, I surrounded myself with people who could relate to my experience. I joined the Pan African Student Organization (PASO), Zeta Chi Phi Multicultural Sorority Inc., and was a frequent member of my schools' Diversity Center. It was helpful to find people who understood my experience.

What are some of the unique strengths you have developed as a first generation student and how are those skills still applicable today?

I strengthened my: 

  • resourcefulness. As the first person in your family to attend college you have to be able to figure out what you don't know and, well, figure it out. I learned how to ask for help and accept help when it is given.
  • ability to navigate spaces in which I am a numerical minority. In any given situation I might be one of a small number of people from my racial, cultural, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic group. Being comfortable in my skin and in my identities is a skill I learned in college that has paid dividend.

How did your experience as a first-generation college student impact your major choice and/or major exploration? 

I wanted to be a nurse when I went to college. Once I realized that was not the path for me, I went through a mini (thought it felt major) crisis. I am thankful that I was in a general education class that I really enjoyed. Through conversations with my advisor, career services and faculty members from those departments, I was able to settle on two majors that I loved.

How did your experiences as a first-generation college student shape your career choices?: 

As the child of immigrants, the value of higher education was always at the forefront. When I realized that I could help other people have the same transformative experiences that I had, I was sold!

What advice would you give to first-generation students?

1) You belong. College can feel harsh, overwhelming, and foreign, but you had what it took to get here, and you have what it takes to succeed here. If your current tactics aren't yielding the results you desire, that's okay. Find someone--an advisor, an instructor, a diversity liaison--to help you adjust your technique so that you can be successful.

2) In addition to peers, form connections with professionals. Get to know your professors and the staff around you as these people can help you grow, navigate the university, advocate for you, help you find opportunities (e.g. research, jobs, internships), write recommendations for you, be references, etc. Form relationships with peers as well. These are your future colleagues and future professionals from all sectors. How great would it be to have a social circle filled with people from all professions and all walks of life?