Intersections of the First Gen Identity

- Kirsty Chan

First-generation identity is a fluid one. I think it’s essential to acknowledge the intersections of the first gen identity. I believe different identities bring their own specific challenges.  I think of the first gen identity as encompassing those that traditionally experience underrepresentation at higher education and therefore face systematic and institution barriers within their university experience. 

It is important to acknowledge that people’s identities are diverse and varied. To explain this, I experienced my time as an undergrad based on how I understood myself and the world around me: as a young Chinese woman who grew up North. My identity has certainly changed and shifted as I completed my first degree. For example, I witnessed a change in my accent, and I also received my label as a late diagnosed dyslexic woman during my masters studies. I carry a dual burden: I am the young person who was identified as a high potential student from a non-privileged background attending a widening participation summer school and holding multiple scholarships and awards. And I am also the young woman with specific learning differences. Underrepresentation does not affect our intellect, but barriers affect our academic performance and career rejectories. And when we internalise these barriers, we risk losing our self-esteem.

Through organising a community for first-gens, I have engaged with many dialogues with myself and others that helped to process difficulties that I have faced. This process meant that I reaffirm my own identity which leads to a greater sense of self awareness.  This exercise also meant that I was able to support others by holding a space where we can share freely without judgement and spread  information that might be useful to our community combat the sense of isolation many first gens face.

Stepping up and showing vulnerability is not easy. The act of doing so is like riding a wave and simultaneously a game where I felt I had to hide my identity in the seminars so that my interpretations and ideas will be taken seriously in academia.  I experienced difficulty when engaging in the field of Anthropology when often the researcher does not belong to the community they study in and interest in studying disadvantaged communities brings along an array of ethical dilemmas such as researcher’s interest in obtaining information required over the urgent needs of the community. There’s a fine boundary and balance to strike when sharing your identity largely stemming from assumption, bias and stigma others hold about you which their unconscious bias might cause their actions to become barriers in reaching your goal such as not being capable to study at university after disclosing mental health conditions. At the same time, disclosing lived experience of depression, anxiety and trauma allows us to explore and grasp complex ideas in the field of Phenomenology and provide unique and specific insights at academia. 

There’s value in lived experience. This lived experience of mine is what allowed me to succeed despite not being identified as dyslexic and not having support to adapt to the changes in my learning style. It built up my strength and resilience, whilst simultaneously giving me a new perspective that I could then integrate into my studies to shape academia with my own skills and experience that I’ve gathered from my lived experiences. I was able to comment and share thoughts I have on policy ideas in the field of International Development and Social Anthropology when we explored issues specifically on economics and class. My lived experiences equipped me with the skill of taking theoretical ideas and committing them to my long term memory by relating it to my lived experience which included being on Educational Maintenance Allowance, not having transportation to attend the school I wished to go to for example.

Embrace your identity and set boundaries to protect it. It’s not our job to educate others. Being in a place where I can be my authentic self is less stressful and anxiety provoking. However, this is not something we can all afford to do. Setting boundaries means that we decide how much we want to engage and what we would like to achieve.