Tuscaloosa, Alabama — “I went to college because that’s what you did in order to make it out of the community that I grew up in,” said Adam Brooks, Ph.D., an associate professor in Communication Studies. “That’s what you did to provide a better life for yourself, so that you could have opportunities that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.” 

Brooks said his father worked in sales “in the time when you didn’t need a college degree for any kind of job.” When his father’s job was eliminated after his company was bought in the early 2000s, Brooks said his father struggled to find a job because he did not have a degree. Because of his family’s financial troubles, they saw a college education as a “key to success.” 

By 2004, Brooks was a first-year student at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Four years later, he also became the first college graduate in his family. But both at home and in school, Brooks said the expectations of being the “first” carried weight which would impact the rest of his life.  

This is his first-gen experience. 

“I got the letter [of admission], and I remember crying. I remember being so excited and also so scared,” he said. Among his concerns with getting into college and paying for it, Brooks said bad advice from a guidance counselor in high school did not help him, as she told him to just go where she went to school. 

“Luckily, my high school speech teacher, Cassie Price, saved my life in so many ways,” said Brooks. “She made me sit down with her during lunch… and I would do nothing but apply to schools, and I would apply for different scholarships.” After school, Brooks used Price’s typewriter to write his scholarship applications. 

Brooks said he and Price worked to piece together small scholarships from various organizations. He also had to take out student loans. 

“We figured it out, but I knew that it was an opportunity,” Brooks said. “I was going to go to my dream school, to the place that I really wanted to go, and I figured, ‘This is my chance for my life to really start.’” 

Brooks worked at a call center on campus, as an intern for the university’s admissions office, and as a mentor for other students. He said his favorite job was as a campus tour guide, or a “Star of Bradley.” 

However, he realized entering college that he had no safety net, or a place to go back to, at home. 

“If I had a problem,” Brooks said, “I couldn’t call my parents and have them help me. I had to do it on my own. So, I think that forces you to take every opportunity that you’re given and go, ‘I have to make something from this.’”

Because of this philosophy, his main goal and purpose in school was the speech team. 

“I’ve seen how, with our alumni that we’ve had, they’ve gone on to lead all these really successful careers,” Brooks said. “I’m like, ‘If I succeed at this, it will lead to something down the road.’ Same thing with my school stuff,” he added. For him, success meant stability. And for stability, Brooks said he had to build a life for himself away from home. However, he was met with some challenges when building that stability. 

Brooks said for a time in school, he ate out of the candy bowl in the office at work to keep away hunger. When his coworkers found out, they invited him over for dinner. 

“I was determined not to let anybody know how much I was struggling,” he said. But he added that invite meant the world to him. 

“I was still very privileged in contrast to other people that I know. I did have housing, but there were times where I didn’t have any money to eat. So, I had to figure that out,” Brooks said. “I was still ‘good.’ There were times when I would struggle.” 

He added that one of the best ways people can support first-gen students is to provide opportunities for students before they express that they need assistance. Brooks said when he was in school, the university faculty would have an open-invitation potluck in which students could participate. They called it “Feed the Kids” day. 

Brooks also experienced multiple learning moments which changed his relationships with friends, family and school in general. He said his grandfather was especially proud of him, giving Brooks a family ring which he still wears today. 

He also mentioned a distance that is felt between some college graduates and their family after graduation. He described it as “tension.” 

“When I would try to share the things that I learned, it was not received well,” Brooks said. He added that his family often met his questioning of knowledge with skepticism, critique and competition. Brooks also said buying a foreign Nissan car, rather than a Ford, was a point of contention among the men of his family. He said they would call him names like “college boy.” 

Brooks mentioned other realizations he had as well, such as his own sense of loneliness over not having someone in his life with a relatable first-gen experience. In addition, he said people assumed his life would be “easy” with a degree. He also struggled to find the freedom to act like himself. 

Drawing upon his experiences, Brooks also gave some of his recommendations for other first-gen students: 

  • Imagine school as a competitive sport for advancing yourself. Don’t just wait for something to happen on its own. 
  • There is likely a university program designed to help you with your exact problem. Do your research and ask questions. The benefits from seeking help outweigh the costs of dealing with it. 
  • Surround yourself with good people. Be the dumbest person in a room so they can teach you. Be the worst at a skill so you can learn it better. Make friends with people that have a completely different life experience from you. It will benefit you. 
  • You are not finished. You are in a constant state of learning and evolution, so do not think that everything is figured out already. 
  • Be the person for someone else that you wish you had in your life and open the doors for other people that were shut for you. 

“Empowering, and worth it,” Brooks said of his time at university. “I wouldn’t be who I am without the experiences that shaped me. But not every first-gen experience is the same.” 

Adam Brooks, PhD., is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies and the director of the Speaking Studio in the College of Communication and Information Sciences (C&IS). Find out more about the Speaking Studio here

C&IS is raising funds for first generation students, for industry immersion, scholarships and resources April 16-18. 

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