First GEMs Shine in the English Department

Erika Gallagher (l) and Alexandra Pleasant (r) at the Fall English Undergraduate Reception, 2017.

“Wow, we’re here. We’re here, that’s significant.” According to UW junior Alexandra Pleasant, this realization sparked the creation of a new undergraduate group in the English department. First GEMs (the brilliant acronym for “First-Generation English Majors”) is a group for English majors who are the first in their families to attend college. Founded by Alexandra (Ali) and Erika Gallagher, First GEMs offers a space in the English department for first-generation majors to network, share advice and support, and hear from professors, advisors, and graduate students who are also first-generation. We asked Ali to share her experience with the group.

How did you get involved with First GEMS?

I got involved in First GEMs because I faced some particularly rough experiences as a First-Generation Student and now, if there’s anything I can do for others, I want to do it. I know what it’s like to feel alone in a University of 40,000 students, and I want others to know that there are people willing to help.

Tell us a little about your experiences as a first generation English major. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced? What unique perspectives do you bring to the table?

The English department just has this incredible warmth about it. My professors know my name, they recognize me semesters after I’ve taken their class. They are delighted by my questions rather than bothered and they seek and opportunity to converse with students. As a First-Generation student I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know professors like that existed beyond the cold academic stereotypes I was familiar with. So I take it to heart when I get to have a conversation with a professor. It’s still magic to me that someone as educated and important genuinely wants to hear my opinion.

I’ve also experienced some challenges as a First-Generation student. It’s the little things like not knowing how to fill out paperwork, or not spending game-days with family, or avoiding talking too much about my classes to my parents because I recognize that they can’t really respond with their own college experiences. In my own personal experience, my First-Generation status has socioeconomic ties, so money always seems to work its way into the foreground of conversations with my family. It’s rare to talk only about how much I love it here without mention of tuition, or financial aid, or scholarships, and the ‘I’m-getting-by-please-don’t-worry’ tone I find myself using around my mother. And I want my family to be a part of this experience with me, but when things are hard I find myself walling them out—trying to do it all by myself—because I know how terrifying the cost of all of this is for a family that’s barely getting by.

As a First Generation student I think I realize the opportunity that education affords at a deeper significance than some of my peers. I’ve been on both sides of the equation so I understand the worth of an education and the cost of it. I’m trying my best to put myself through school; I don’t want to be a burden. For me personally, every little bit of help I get feels like a great debt I owe to someone who has invested in me, and because of that I don’t want to let anyone down. I don’t just want to get through school with a degree and a career, I genuinely want to change the world. I want to prove that I was worth it all along.

What has it been like to work and connect with other first generation students?

I think that the people I meet through First GEMs are the reason I’m so passionate about this club. When I meet these people I’m constantly amazed by how hard they work but how grounded they are. I think First-Generation students have this brilliant kind of motivation. Once out of the gate they race for gold because they worked so hard just to get to that stating line. And I think there’s this tendency among First-Generation students to want to apologize for not knowing how to navigate the University experience, like being a step behind everyone else is a personal shortcoming. With First GEMs, we’re part of a community where we don’t need to explain that we don’t know what we’re doing, or that our parent’s don’t know how to help, but all of a sudden there’s someone that says I’ve been there and this is how you get through it. And I think there’s a lot of potential in all of us feeling a step behind and each of us pressing the other’s forward; it builds momentum.

It’s like an underdogs club, we’re here and we’re the ones to watch.