College Is A 4-Year-Long Balancing Act For First-Generation Students

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Halley Katz (left) is the first person in her family to attend a four-year college. Tyler Lattimore is a first-generation college graduate.
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When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who's already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

Halley Katz has almost always known what career she wanted to pursue.

"I've wanted to be a writer since I was 4 or 5 years old," she says. "In eighth grade I took a creative writing class that had a unit on creative nonfiction. And that was the moment I decided I wanted to double major in journalism and political science."

But college was never a sure thing. No one in her family had attended a four-year college, and Halley ended up dropping out of high school.

Now, after completing two years at a community college, she is enrolled in her first term at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

Four years ago, Tyler Lattimore was in a similar position. He always knew he wanted to be a lawyer and that education was the best option for his future.

"My mom always taught us that was the way out," he recently told Halley. "I knew that the only path to escape the financial situation that I grew up in ... was continuing my education, and college just seemed like the natural choice for me."

While making the choice to attend college was an easy one for Tyler, figuring out how to actually do it was a challenge. Without anyone at home to guide him, attending college was like taking a "step out into [the] unknown."

Tyler graduated this year with a degree in political science from Emory University in Atlanta.


Lessons from Tyler Lattimore

On having to prove himself to his peers at college

[At times my peers] based my getting there — my being there — on how I looked, and what my financial history was. And at the beginning, I felt like I had to prove them wrong, show them that I was just as good as them, or sometimes you struggle with, "Well are they right? Is that the only reason why I'm here?"

But for me, it was OK, what do you do with these emotions? What do you do with these feelings? Do you internalize them in the sense that you give them validation, or do you look at yourself, and you say, "I own my experience. I've worked just as hard, and in a lot of cases harder than a lot of my peers just because of where I come from and what the learning curve was before me." And that's what keeps me motivated, keeps me going.

On having a different economic situation than his friends

You do deal with that. Like, your friends who have the money or don't think about it as much, about going out to eat every night. Or getting an Uber and just casually saying "We'll all split it," and you're not financially in the same place.

There were times where I heard my classmates say they don't even know what financial aid is. ... For me, it was a struggle between OK, do I pretend? Or am I honest with my financial situation? And I found that by being honest you create an opportunity to educate people — people who haven't thought about money in the same way that we have.

On balancing school, work and a social life

You have to make compromises. For me it was like, do I skip dinner and hang out and then go to work? Or do I balance everybody coming to dinner with me and walk me to work so we can talk for a few minutes. I just simply couldn't go to hang out with my friends every time they were getting together. ... You have to find that balance and it's OK to struggle with that and really try to find that equilibrium.

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