Being First: The Challenge Behind the Achievement

By Cheyanne Cierpial

Being first marks an achievement, something to be proud of. For first-generation college students, the pride and achievement of being the first in their families to attend and graduate from college is monumental. For first-generation students inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the achievement is even more significant.

A first-generation student is defined as one who comes from a family where neither parent has earned a four-year college degree. Despite the unique set of challenges these students face, Brandon Bertot, a first-generation college student, was inducted into Oberlin College’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa this spring. 

“Being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as a first-generation college student is a tremendous honor. It means that despite being at what many may consider a possible disadvantage, but what I consider a motivator, I overcame the odds and not only graduated from a fine institution, but did so in style knowing that I was one of the top students in my class,” Bertot explained. “Ultimately, being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in a way validates all of my hard work.” 

Research shows that private colleges enroll a higher proportion first-generation students, and that these students are more likely to graduate than at larger schools. Yet, explaining the concept, price, and benefit of a private liberal arts education to parents with no college experience can be complicated. First-generation students may be pressured into pre-professional programs at public universities or encouraged to enter the workforce after high school. Some may feel the weight of responsibility to stay at home and help support their families or guilt for leaving them behind. 

Iliana Vargas was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Arizona in 2008 as a first-generation college student. She was recently profiled by Pacific Standard magazine as one of “The Top Thinkers Under 30: The First Generation College Student Modifying the Memories of Humans” for her doctoral research on the neuroscience of synesthesia at Northwestern University. 

Vargas was quoted in Pacific Standard as saying, “although [my parents] have always been supportive of my interest in continuing my education, they lacked the resources to guide me through the college application process or assist me financially throughout my schooling. As a result, I know how difficult it is for first-generation students to attend college.” 

Often, their identity as a first-generation college student serves as a motivating factor for high achievements such as continuing education after undergrad, being elected into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduating with honors. 

“There are first-generation students who view their status as a source of strength. It becomes their single most important motivator to earning their degree. These students are driven and determined. They can perform academically in ways that are equal to or even better than students whose parents have earned a degree,” wrote Associate Professor Linda Banks-Santilli in a Washington Post article

“I would have loved to have been able to ask my parents what to expect in college before they left after my freshman orientation at Oberlin, but I simply did not have that luxury,” Bertot recalled. 

“Thankfully, I was not only able to adapt to life at Oberlin, which is no small feat on its own, but I thrived and accomplished many of the goals that I had initially set out to such as getting accepted to medical school, while also earning achievements that I had not even set out for such as being inducted to Phi Beta Kappa,” he added. 

Cheyanne Cierpial is a senior at Denison University majoring in English Literature and minoring in Psychology. Denison University is home to the Theta of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.