Finding your feet as a first-generation fresher

Credit: Arianna Clark

Madison Plumridge
Writer

Madison Plumridge offers her guide to navigating university as a first-generation student.

Navigating the world of university – filled with gowns, academic papers, and cliquey student societies – is arguably daunting for any first year. Glasgow is no different. When a seemingly innocent trip to the Beer Bar ends in a political debate, it’s easy to quickly feel out of your depth. This is only worsened for first-generation students. For us, the world of university is equally as alien to our parents as it is to ourselves, and this can often leave us feeling like an imposter in this new and unfamiliar environment. First-generation students are also disproportionately likely to come from low-income families and working-class areas, further defying the Glasgow University stereotype. Whilst your parents might not have any first-hand experience to guide you through your first year at Glasgow, I do. So, from one first-generation student to another, here is my guide to surviving and thriving at university in three (fairly) simple steps.

Step one: Don’t underestimate yourself
Unsurprisingly, research on first-generation university students in the UK is severely lacking. However, studies on our US and Australian counterparts show that first-generation students are less likely to apply to university than those who have parents with degrees, and those of us who do apply often opt for less selective universities. As discouraging as this research sounds, we as first-generation students should find a sense of pride and achievement in having already defied expectations by applying to, and being accepted by, a prestigious institution like Glasgow. 

After a year of lectures and tutorials, I feel it’s safe to conclude that what separates working-class, first-generation students from middle-class, second or third, (or more) generation students is not passion or aptitude for our subject, but is instead self-confidence. It’s easy to feel hesitant to contribute to a discussion in a tutorial or answer a question in a lecture when other students seem far more self-assured and “at home” in academia than you do. However, despite what the last 15 years of school may have taught you, success at university is less about being “right” or “wrong”, and more about being able to consider and discuss a variety of ideas, perspectives and concepts. Don’t underestimate yourself. Know that you do have something to contribute to every tutorial, Beer Bar debate, or student society. Don’t let the same type of people who have dominated every aspect of university life for the past several centuries continue to do so.

Step two: Find your people
Whilst it’s easy to envision that most of the students wandering around Glasgow’s Hogwarts-esque campus are equally as mystic as their surroundings, this is generally not the case. Don’t get me wrong, Glasgow has a long way to go before it is properly representative of the wider population. However, thanks to students like us, ancient universities like Glasgow are no longer the posh boys’ clubs that they used to be, and nowadays it isn’t too hard to find other working-class or first-generation students in the same shoes as you. 

Suddenly being surrounded by thousands of new people may be daunting at first, but it gives you the opportunity to find people who you have things in common with. These are probably not the people who you share a kitchen with, or the drunk girl you meet in the toilets of the QMU; ask any recent graduate and they will tell you that the friends they finished university with were definitely not the friends that they started with. The numerous societies and sports clubs available are a good place to start when first trying to find your feet at university; being able to bond over a shared interest or hobby is certainly a step towards overcoming class divisions. 

Admittedly, some student societies can feel more exclusive or hierarchical, but the sheer number of societies that exist means you’re guaranteed to find one you feel comfortable in – after all, I’m sure the Harry Potter fans playing quidditch in the cloisters aren’t worrying about social class.

Step three: Know you belong here
I don’t think I will ever not be stumped by the sheer number of people at university who take great pride in telling you that they went to an expensive private school, or that their father, grandfather, and his grandfather before that all attended Glasgow. Our parents may not have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on our education and yet here we are, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with people from top private schools internationally. If anything, it makes the school fees seem like a waste of money on their part. First-generation or not, all students would fare well to remember that, regardless of background, we are all sitting in the same 9am lecture on a Tuesday morning. It would be a lie to say that we are all equal. While we may have similar grades and attend the same university, some students certainly have the upper-hand – whether that be academically, financially, or in other areas. However, things such as bursaries, scholarships, and hardship funds can help to level the playing field. For example, the university offers an Access Bursary to students whose families fall under the lower-income bracket, which is automatically processed during registration. In 2019, ancient universities like Glasgow should no longer function only to serve the elite. Working-class and first-generation students should know that they belong here as much as anybody else.
For more information on financial support, visit: www.gla.ac.uk/scholarships/