Tag Archives: mentors

Still Lost in the Academy: The Importance of #L1S and Other First Generation Initiatives

Disclaimer: This post is only about my experience as a first generation student. My experience is not truth. While I try to highlight some research done on this topic and point to others’ reflections, it’s worth stating that first generation student’s experiences are as diverse as they are.

Sometimes I get comfortable. I start to think that I have “made it” (whatever the hell that means), that I finally have some level of comfort with the academy, that I can speak the language of academia, that I can honor where I come from while still fitting in where I’ve worked so hard to be. And then I realize just how naïve I am.

A lot has happened in the last few months to bring me back to this topic. Kelly Kietur recently wrote a brilliant blog post entitled “HOT TAKE: class feelings and lis,” where she names her feelings of never belonging as being a “perpetual outsider”. This really resonated with me and pushed me to think about and reflect upon my recent experiences and how they relate to my first generation student status.

I just moved to a new institution, Davidson College, to start my journey as a new professional. The transition has been smooth sailing, mostly because of the awesome team that I have here. Still, Davidson is a very prestigious, selective college (the class of 2018’s median ACT score was a 31, which is 5 points higher than my best) and it has been difficult for me not to psych myself out about being in this environment. Davidson also recruits brilliant faculty that have degrees from other highly prestigious institutions. I often find myself doubting my ability (more on this later) to connect with them in a meaningful way or even have an in-depth conversation with them.

In addition to adjusting to Davidson, I’ve spent a lot more time with my mother recently. A few weeks ago she volunteered to help me move everything I own down to North Carolina, which was not an easy task, given that it was almost one hundred degrees for most of the move. Even just this one act illustrates my mom’s thoughtfulness and generosity. She has taught me things about the world that you can’t learn in a classroom. She continuously keeps me grounded but still ambitious. Yet being with her for almost a week reminded me that we always have to remember where we come from. She mispronounced words that are in my daily vocabulary now. She asked me a lot of questions about flying because she hadn’t been on a plane in over a decade. She talked about the physical work she had been doing and her fear of not having a real plan for retirement. I say these things not to embarrass my mom or ground sweeping statements about those without post-secondary education but simply because I think they illustrate what sparked my reflection. Does pronunciation really define how I feel about my mom? Of course not. But here I’m reminded of one of Maria Accardi’s more recent insights on her Library Burnout blog:

I think that the impulse to compare yourself to others in order to improve your mindset or make you feel grateful is not always the most affirming mental move to make, but thinking about my life in terms of my mother-in-law’s life has certainly informed and enriched my perspective, because while I do feel marginalized in some areas of my life, I also exist on multiple axes of privilege.

I value every minute I get to spend with my mom. But every minute also reminds me that I’m often playing make-believe, trying to pretend that I fit into academia and the poverty that I come from or, worse, that I have finally found my true place in the academy and that I should be ashamed of where I started and who I “left behind”. These feelings often create a sense of guilt that can be unmanageable.

To top it all off, I have also been working on the first draft of my first peer-reviewed publication. Kelly describes publishing in a journal as “daunting and almost impossible,” which I agree with. As I read more and more articles for my literature review, I find so much of the LIS and education literature inaccessible. These are articles about development, international forms of open access, the digital divide, and critical and inclusive pedagogy and I have trouble understanding a lot of it. Why write an article if the people that you are writing it for/ about can’t read it?! Ellen MacInnis recently tweeted something I think everyone claiming to do “radical” research needs to read:

So what’s my point? Why am I writing about this on ACRLog? I believe that we still have a lot of work to do in LIS, both in supporting and nurturing new LIS professionals that come from a first generation background and in creating academic library services that support first generation students broadly. In addition, I often see a lot of conversations focused on either the financial or academic hardships that first generation students face. These usually talk about retention in terms of scholarships, grants, or work study or the availability of academic support structures like remedial courses or tutoring. These conversations are vital to the success of first gen students. But I think that the social and emotional challenges that first generation students grapple with sometimes take a back seat to these more “tangible” problems, even though addressing them is just as important to actually retaining students. Further, if students are feeling guilty, angry, abandoned, and alone it is likely to affect their academic success.

For Ourselves

There are LIS professionals that identify as “first generation,” whether that means being the first person in their family to go to college or graduate school or the simply someone that is currently part of a different class than the one they were raised in. How can we, as first generation LIS practitioners, support each other? How can our colleagues learn more about the challenges we face?

This work has already been started! Cecily Walker (@skeskali) has started to collect feedback from self-identified first generation LIS folks about what support they need. As a result, she moderated a Twitter chat on June 1st where first gen LIS professionals discussed the challenges they face, how their experiences with class have informed their work, and what “coming out” to colleagues looked like. Cecily explains why she finds this work important on her blog.

I’ve had two revelations recently that I’d love to see the LIS community discuss more.

Several years ago, Teresa Heinz Housel wrote an article for the Chronicle entitled “First-Generation Students Need Help in Straddling Their 2 Cultures.” In the article, she describes her experience realizing that a new status didn’t change the disconnect she felt while in the academy:

After I accepted a faculty position, I wrongfully assumed that the old cultural demons would be gone. If anything, cultural isolation can increase up the career trajectory. Dinner parties, intellectual competition, and expectation of education as a right rather than a privilege underscore academic values.

I continue to learn and re-learn this. Earlier I described this feeling of “making it,” of feeling secure in academia. I am constantly realizing that being a first generation student actually means realizing again and again that I am different. I have profoundly different experiences than many of my colleagues and that’s okay. It’s actually something to be proud of. But sometimes I will find myself in situations where it’s difficult to remember that. I feel ashamed that I don’t know something or I feel lost in certain conversations. I feel like I’m a helpless college freshman all over again. How do other LIS professionals deal with these feelings? How do we continue to show pride in being different and assert that our voices make academia a much more rich and fascinating place?

I have also been thinking a lot lately about how the media and the public has informed the way I think about my abilities and myself. Lynne Coy-Ogan wrote a dissertation in 2009 where she studied first-generation students in depth. One of her findings was that despite their resiliency and success in other aspects of their lives, first generation students were often reluctant to identify themselves possibly because of shame related to the criminalization of poverty. They believed that they were “subordinate to their peers” and they often underestimated their abilities (Coy-Ogan, 2009, p. 19). They are also more likely to accept degrading or demeaning labels or representations of themselves (Coy-Ogan, 2009).

I do this a lot. I beat myself up. I underestimate my ability in a variety of situations, from #critlib chats to faculty outreach. I have already doubted this blog post and the quality of my writing several times! Part of this is that I am a human being. We always have some level of self-doubt and fear when we’re putting ourselves out there. However, the older I get, the more I realize that my feelings fit into a greater narrative that the world has told me about myself. From Missouri’s food bans to Arizona’s drug tests, our nation has no problem dehumanizing its poorest citizens. Welfare recipients are depicted as lazy drug addicts whose only skill set is manipulating and cheating the system. This idea has been alive and well since Reagan depicted the “welfare queen” several decades ago.

When you spend all of your life hearing these things about yourself, about your caretaker, about your community, what does this do to your self-esteem? What do you internalize? More importantly, how do we take these stories back? How do we assert that they won’t have power over us any longer? How do we help students do the same?

For Our Students

We have to acknowledge that a) first generation students exist on our campuses and b) that they experience the same challenges I’ve discussed above (and many more). There is a ton of literature on how to serve and mentor first-generation students and taking advantage of it should be an active part of library service planning, not an afterthought.

Again, I think that there also needs to be a more extensive conversation about the emotional, affective challenges inherent in being the first person in your family to straddle class lines and bear the emotional weight of “making it” for everyone before you that couldn’t. I know that having mentors that were more familiar with higher education than my parents has been invaluable. Having a community of other first generation students, faculty, and staff to work through these issues with would have also been helpful. How can librarians take on these roles?

Librarians should also start to think about first generation students’ needs in the context of information literacy, scholarly communication, and technology. Brinkman et al. presented an ACRL conference paper entitled “When the Helicopters are Silent: The Information Seeking Strategies of First-Generation College Students” in 2013. They explore a thought-provoking idea: if first-generation students’ parents don’t have specific information-seeking experience (as most other college students’ parents do) how do their information-seeking habits differ from their peers, both academically and practically? How does this affect library anxiety?

Getting to Work

Housel ends her Chronicle article with the following sentence:

I have slowly found other first-generation colleagues at my institution and others. Our conversations helped me realize that the biggest lie we have faced is that we do not belong in academic culture.

Let’s make our profession one that intentionally challenges and disregards this lie instead of perpetuating it.


Brinkman, S., Gibson, K., & Presnell, J. (2013). When the helicopters are silent: The information seeking strategies of first-generation college students. In D.M. Mueller (Ed.), Imagine, innovate, inspire: The proceedings of the ACRL 2013 conference. (pp. 643-650). Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Coy-Ogan, L. (2009). Percieved factors influencing the pursuit of higher education among first- generation college students (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation and Theses database. (UMI Number 3389750).

First Day Reflections

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Kim Miller, Research and Instruction Librarian for Emerging Technologies at Towson University.

This fall, as new-student orientation and move-in wrapped up, the campus at my new institution was noticeably abuzz with the promise of a new start – a new semester, new students, and new faculty. As a life-long academic, there’s something about this time of year – those first few days of a new school year, as the weather turns and the leaves begin to change – that always makes me feel like anything is… possible.

Earlier this summer, I also started my first job as a newly minted, “real” academic librarian. That day, although I had just completed the rigorous academic interview and hiring process, not to mention moved myself and my family 600 miles to our new home, I felt more like “the new kid” in school than a recently hired professional.

The night before my first day, I tossed and turned, anxiously awaiting the moment my alarm would ring, telling me it was time to begin my day. As I showered, got dressed, and ate my breakfast, I worried about basic things the other kids librarians probably already knew – like where to park my bike car, which door to go in, where the “cool kids” other staff members eat lunch, and when the final bell rings everyone leaves for the day. As I drove my new 45 minute commute, carefully following the directions printed out the night before, I excitedly wondered if today, the pinnacle towards which I had been striving, would be all that I hoped it would be. And luckily, it was. That evening, about eight-and-a-half hours after I first walked over the library’s threshold, I drove home excited by all of the… possibilities.

As I now welcome new students to our campus, I find myself reflecting on my own first day. And just like being the “new kid” at school, I think there are a few basic tips for the new academic librarian:

  • Use the buddy system… and find a mentor. New places are instantly more welcoming if you explore them with someone else. Two extremely useful types of people are: other recent hires (if available), and more experienced librarian mentors. If librarians at your college or university are on the tenure or permanent status track, your “cohort” of newly hired librarians will become the people you “grow up” with throughout your career. They are likely as eager as you to begin researching, presenting, and publishing, probably with YOU. And some day, you’ll be each others support as you complete the dreaded promotion “dossier.”  Equally important are the “lifer” librarians – not just the people who’ve worked at the institution for a long time, but those who are integrated into the “why” and “how” of the library. They know the history, they’ve experienced successes and failures, and since they probably had a hand in hiring you, they are invested in your success. Having a hard time identifying a mentor at your own institution?  Look into the national organization’s mentorship programs to find one.
  • Raise your hand… and ask a lot of questions. Every library works differently – they have different policies, different philosophies, different users, and different cultures. No matter how long you’ve worked in libraries or how much research you do about your new library beforehand, there are some things you simply can’t learn until you experience and question them. Simple things like, “Where’s the printer paper?” to more complex, cultural questions like, “Am I allowed to post to my liaison department’s email list?” will require answers. You won’t know until you ask.
  • Join a club… or as academic librarians like to call them “professional organizations” and “committees.” Our profession is all about making connections. Professional organizations and committees are one of the best ways to connect with other librarians in your community. We are all too busy, too underfunded, and have too many interests to work solely by ourselves or even within our own institution. Finding like-minded professionals to learn from and collaborate with, forming our own “personal learning network,” helps us develop our professional identities while collaborating with other people who are interested in asking the same questions and solving the same problems we face daily. And if you’re not physically near a pocket of professionals, social media outlets are making it increasingly possible to develop and maintain your PLN from a distance.
  • Walk like a duck… so pretty soon, you’ll feel like a duck. It’s not uncommon for brand new professionals to feel something like an “imposter.” Although we have worked hard to finish our degrees, made it through (sometimes numerous) professional interviews, and celebrated our accomplishments with family and friends, we are also faced with severe self-doubt. Given a real position of authority, we’re afraid we’ll be exposed as a fraud – that somehow we’re clever magicians who’ve fooled the world into thinking we know anything about… well, anything. In these instances, the best thing for us to do is “fake it ’till you make it.” That is, after a while, that fear and self-doubt will be transformed into the confidence needed to accept success and bounce back from failures.
  • Enjoy “recess” and obey your bedtime… you’ll need the downtime. The excitement of starting a new career makes it easy to dive into your work so enthusiastically that you forget about everything else. But to be our best at work, we need to respect the work-life balance and make sure to take care of ourselves in the process. People sometimes scoff when I insist on enforcing my own bedtime, but getting rest is essential for top-quality everyday functioning. Lack of sleep makes it harder for us to focus, remember, and learn new skills, making us less effective workers. Sleep deprivation also makes us sick, increasing the likelihood we miss work, adding to our own stress. Respect your body and it will serve you well.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all formula to surviving your first few days as an academic librarian, I hope we are all filled with the sense of possibilities the new beginning brings.

Did you start a new job recently? What are your tips and tricks for thriving in the first few months as a new librarian?

Image by Vipal