Zipporah Osei always planned to attend college—but her idea of exactly what that meant was somewhat fuzzy.
“I think a lot of people take for granted the amount of knowledge that you get throughout your life about college when you have parents who have gone to college,” she says. “So just the conversations about living in a dorm, or conversations about FAFSA—that just kind of trickle in throughout your life. By the time you get there, these phrases aren’t completely foreign to you."
But Osei didn’t get these kinds of conversations growing up, because she is the first of her family to go to college.
These days she’s telling the story of her college search experience and her time as an undergraduate in an email newsletter called First Gen. Along the way, she’s offering lessons for other students, and candidly sharing details about her own experiences—and finances—that most people keep to themselves.
Her hope is that other students will learn and benefit from her struggles. But the project also offers plenty of lessons for educators hoping to support first-gen students.
She started the newsletter as a side project about six months ago, applying the skills she’s learning as a journalism major. The newsletter is now hosted by the journalism nonprofit Open Campus, founded by former top editors at The Chronicle of Higher Education. (In full disclosure, I work with Open Campus informally as an editorial advisor, which is how I first heard of this newsletter.)
Her story started in Yonkers, just outside of New York City.
“My mom is an immigrant from Ghana, and from the time I was really young, she really emphasized the importance of getting an education,” she said. “I always knew I was going to college. It was just a matter of which one.”
Her college search involved a lot of figuring things out on her own, and the only campuses she could actually visit were ones in New York that she could get to on public transportation.
Yet in the end, she picked a college farther from home—Northeastern University, in Boston.
“I ended up going to Northeastern University, both because of their co-op program and I wanted to go into journalism [and thought] that was a good way to get experience and also because they gave me the biggest scholarship. And so it made financial sense. I actually had never seen Northeastern until after I put my deposit.”
What advice does she have for educators when it comes to first-gen students?
“Challenge your assumptions about what the college experience is like for your students,” she says. “I think people make a lot of assumptions based on what their own experiences like or what the ‘traditional student’ is. But there are students of all backgrounds—not just first-generation students—who have different challenges and are experiencing college in very different ways. And so if you come at it with flexibility from the start, I think you’re better off.”
Hear more on this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast.
Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below.