Fitting in as a first-generation student

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As the first in my family to go to university, the prospect of higher education was particularly daunting. I had no idea what to expect. Despite my anxieties, I set my aspirations high and applied to read English Literature at five of the UK’s top universities.

In 2015-16, 6.6% of students admitted to University College were from a lower social class

After analysing Brontë’s Rochester as ‘an absolute git’ in what must have been an outstanding Cambridge interview, I was left with my second choice. Shortly after receiving the rejection letter, I accepted a place at University College, Durham. Perhaps it was for the best – surely a Lancashire accent wouldn’t seem too out of place in the North East.

In my experience, being a first generation Northern student at Durham involves the following things: Being described as ‘the Northern friend’ in a place that is 112 miles more Northern than my hometown, becoming a caricature to fit into my new role as the Northerner, wondering whether people with my accent ever talk about Shakespeare, wondering whether this means I’m allowed to talk about Shakespeare, feeling inarticulate, feeling inadequate, feeling pissed off.

Before Durham, I’d never had an academic conversation outside the confines of a classroom. In fact, I’d never had a one-to-one academic conversation at all. Once I arrived, I was forced to navigate a world of gowns, polo, and Shakespearean scholars. I was out of my depth.

The process of ‘othering’ the working-class student is particularly insiduous

When you’re the first in your family to go to university, you’re pretty naïve. In 2015-16, 6.6% of the students admitted to University College were classified by the University as being in the lower social class codes of their socioeconomic grouping.

Yet this ranking classifies those students whose parents are small employers and account workers with those individuals whose parents are long-term unemployed in their data collection. Therefore, within this 6.6% it is hard to determine how many of these individuals are from backgrounds where the economic constraints of Durham could be overwhelming.

As a result of this clear minority of working-class students in my college, there have been times when I’ve never felt more alone than in a room full of people.

I often find myself constantly reminded of the fact that I am different

The identity politics of being a working-class student at Durham is complex. In an effort to transcend class stereotypes, I often find myself constantly reminded of the fact that I am different. The process of ‘othering’ the working-class student is particularly insidious in Durham.

In my personal experience, being a first generation Northern student at Durham also involves the following things: Being friends with people from different walks of life, becoming more empathetic towards other minorities, realising that some of the world’s best scholars are Northern, realising that eloquence is not equated with any particular accent, feeling articulate, feeling adequate. Feeling proud to be part of the 6.6%.

Image Photography: Zoë Boothby

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