Rise of the First-Gens

by Eckhart Spalding

Eckhart Spalding received a PhD from the University of Arizona and is now a postdoc at the University of Sydney in Australia, where he works on high-contrast imaging instrumentation for studying exoplanets. He is also an alum of Astrobites, and his posts can be found here

The privileged few

In the day-to-day bustle of a place where science happens—a large university, say, or a national lab—it is easy to lose sight of the fact that higher education is the privilege of the few. In the U.S., only about one-third of adults have ever finished college, and only 1.4% have a Ph.D.

It has also been found that, for decades, professors across various fields have been many times more likely to have been raised by a parent who already has a Ph.D. In physics and astronomy, they are more than 25 times more likely to have had such a parent than the population at large.

First-generation college students are people who, by construction, are defying this self-reinforcing cycle of socioeconomic privilege. This is despite additional odds stacked against them, such as the fact that they have disproportionately less access to information about how to make it in science, either in a formal sense or from role models who have preceded them; they are disproportionately financially challenged; or they may lack a sense of belonging for a variety of reasons.

Homeschool to grad school

Amy Glazier had aspirations to go to college and do science, but had not started within the usual pipeline for higher education at all. After having been homeschooled until the age of 19, she began her formal educational track by taking classes at a local community college, where she got a full merit-based scholarship and a student worker job. The student body there had roughly equal representation of males and females, and many people had nontraditional backgrounds.

When Amy applied to transfer to bachelor’s programs, she faced the fact that she would lose need-based financial aid, given the impossibility of obtaining certain information for a FAFSA form. Even with the scholarships she was offered by a couple of colleges, she had only saved enough money for a single year of study. But Austin College, a small liberal arts school, allowed her to defer her admission for a year. So she finagled a plan to keep working and save money until she turned 24, whereupon she qualified as a non-dependent student who could apply for need-based financial assistance.

At the liberal arts school, the student body was now mostly white and male. While taking classes, Amy had to work two or three part-time jobs, and, lacking public transportation, she had to drive an hour and a half every day. Some professors didn’t seem to be able to relate to her background, but she found a couple understanding mentors who encouraged her along. One of them was the physicist Don Salisbury, who, it so happens, had been active in the Civil Rights movement. After Amy applied to graduate schools, she received an acceptance offer just a week before the acceptance deadline. She is now at UNC Chapel Hill.

Every stage in the process was like entering a different universe, each with its own conventions, demographics, workplace culture, and unwritten rules. With every step she found herself in a shrinking proportion of female students, and each time she had to learn things that may have seemed obvious to someone who had started at a large university and had been on the same track the whole time. “There are times when it just didn’t occur to me,” she says, “like emailing the instrument person to figure out how to write the telescope proposal.”

What did she gain from all those experiences? “Persistence,” she says. “It took me seven years to finish my bachelor’s.” What advice would you give your past self? “Ask for help more. Don’t be afraid of asking for it. It is worth it to keep going. And the people who don’t like you don’t matter.”

Try and try again

Steven Villaneuva is a Mexican-American. No one ahead of his generation in the family had finished college, and he was in the first generation to be raised with English at home. Steven made an attempt at college, even though he “had no idea what going to college entailed, financially or otherwise.” As a freshman, he furiously juggled odd jobs to pay for tuition because he did not know about student loans. He delivered pizzas and UPS packages, did landscaping work in the hot sun, and dropped out exhausted after a single year.

After 9/11 happened, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. His family had a long and proud history of service, and he felt it was the right thing to do. And if he were to go back to college, he thought, the military might help pay. During his enlistment, he traveled abroad for the first time and had the mind-opening experience of being in different countries and seeing people doing things in different ways. In the brain-baking heat and humidity of Qatar, Steven worked as an equipment mechanic supporting F15-E fighter jets heading out to Afghanistan and Iraq. He watched the planes howl into the air, bristling with finned bombs on the undercarriages. When they returned empty hours later, he thought, “I’m in it.”

After four years, he returned to civilian life and was struck by how people back in the U.S. went about their daily lives with only the foggiest awareness that a war was going on. He reapplied to colleges and was rejected by all, likely because of his GPA from his first attempt. But a representative from Texas A&M approached him and encouraged him to take classes at a community college, and then reapply. After attending community college in Dallas (and cleaning fish tanks at Petco), Steven was indeed accepted to A&M. He was now in his mid-twenties, and did not yet know how to write code. But some instrumentation-oriented people were interested in him, because unlike many other physics students, he could build things with his hands.

College was still a very foreign place. “It struck me,” he says, “how much of the system my peers were familiar with–-the syllabus, the registrar, office hours—I had no idea what those are, and that office hours are free tutoring. And a lot of people unaware of these concepts fall behind.” Simply encountering students who already knew these things was “eye-opening.” Several adventures later, Steven succeeded in getting a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M, and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

Steven is now a postdoc at NASA Goddard, and is a passionate advocate for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), which mentors minority students within the STEM pipeline, and is Assistant Director of the NASA SMD Bridge Program, which assists people from underrepresented groups in making a successful transition from college to graduate school. Steven advises people to seek out academic advisors, tutors, and people who can provide assistance related to financial and mental issues. “I would tell my younger self to ask for help more,” he says. Even if people are aware of such resources, they may still hesitate because “it’s a self-perceived sign of weakness.”

Different trajectories

Part of the challenge in getting assistance is that, for people who are not first-gens, ignorance is often mutual. “When no one in your family has been through [additional educational challenges], you don’t realize how ignorant other people are of support structures,” says Steven. The only thing that may seem amiss to anyone else might be a mysterious chip-on-the-shoulder, or a failure to show up for office hours… because they don’t know what office hours are. Indeed, at the level of graduate school or research careers, many of those first-gens are simply not there anymore. They’ve been lost from the pipeline, and are out-of-mind.

It is notable how often a first-gen’s trajectory can hinge entirely on chance events like one conversation, or a single offer of admission at the last minute, or one or two good mentors. A common trait is persistence, which in turn often depends on the level of supportiveness of a first-gen’s family. Many people, first-gen or not, can get a good start at a community college, and some people who have started there have risen to the very height of success.

For some, time in the armed forces can be a source of financial assistance, like the G.I. Bill or ROTC scholarships in the U.S. The experience can also serve as training in management and leadership skills among enlistees from very different places and walks of life, for which there is no class in a graduate program. (Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s recent associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate who helped rescue the JWST mission from financial and managerial disaster, credits the development of his leadership skills to his time in the Swiss Army, which also paid for his education up through his master’s degree.) Vets can turn to support programs for undergraduate studies (for example, the Warrior-Scholar Project), and for graduate school (like the Student Veterans Research Network).

Whatever their individual trajectories, first-gens bring different perspectives and different skills to their work which benefit the field in the long run, and can come in handy in unpredictable moments. Amy relates one time when people from her lab were setting up a telescope and were struggling to align it on a known star. Amy, coming from a rural background, was the only one who actually knew the constellations, and swiveled the telescope to exactly where it needed to be. Her advisor turned to her in surprise— “How did you know that?”


I would like to acknowledge the NASA ExoExplorer program for their support and assistance in finding the right people to talk to. For taking the time to relate their experiences, I thank Amy and Steven, as well as Marie Ygouf, Briley Lewis, Aarynn Carter, Matt Clement, Samson Johnson, and Elisa Quintana.

Astrobite edited by Ali Crisp

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