Always Playing an Away Game: The Unique Challenges Faced by First Generation Students

UT Law First Generation Network Executive Committee

One of the greatest parts of law school is the diversity of our class. Each person brings their own perspective, shaped by where they’re from and what they’ve done. However, the perspectives and backgrounds accompanying them may be uncommon, and some people may find themselves outnumbered, even seemingly alone. First generation studentsthe first in their family to attend a post-secondary institutionare one of these groups. Only eight percent of the Class of 2018 is first-gen. This year, it is only six percent.

Law school is certainly not easy for anyone, regardless of their background. But first generation students can face several unique challenges. David Onestak has likened being a first-gen student to being an athlete always playing an away game:

For a minor-league baseball player on a long road trip, the unfamiliar bed, lack of home cooking, unusual daily routine, absence of local supporters, and unfamiliar ballpark surroundings can be a source of stress and an impediment to success on the field. … After a while the unfamiliar may become recognizable, but it never feels like home. First-generation students … may feel like they are on a road trip that never stops; that every day is full of potential barriers to success that are the price of being the first in their family to attend college. If that price feels too steep, or if there is no one in a student’s family who can assure him or her that the eventual payoff is much greater than the price, the idea of even being in college may be overwhelming.

This sensation of stepping into uncharted territory can make some first-gen students feel like they’re leaving their family behind by choosing to pursue a professional life. They may also feel that it’s harder to connect with their family because their worlds and social groups have drifted so far apart. Sometimes their family might place a higher value on working, settling down, and staying close to home, and may not understand the personal motivations and ambitions of a first-gen student.

On the other hand, some parents of other first-gen students are ecstatic that their child is going to law schoolalthough this can bring different types of stress. Some students may feel that their whole family is counting on them, whether financially or to ‘move the family up’ the social ladder. The accompanying fear of disappointing your family can weigh on a first-gen student’s mind throughout their schooling.

Being first-gen can also be an isolating experience for some. It can be a hard thing to talk about when you’re only one of twelve first-gen students in your year, and finding those other eleven students can be tough. One reason is that people may be cautious about ‘outing’ themselves as first-gen because they could find it shameful. It can be an embarrassing subject when a friend is talking about their upcoming ski trip to Whistler while you know you’ll be helping your parents fix their leaky bathroom roof, or searching for single-day jobs on Craigslist with the hope of being able to buy textbooks that semester. Another reason might be that it’s difficult to track down other first-gen students and schedule a pub night when everyone is free.

Additionally, the law school seems to presume that students come armed with a certain amount of social capital and knowledge. Whether it’s knowing how to dress in a professional environment, or knowing the appropriate modes and topics of conversation at work, first-gen students may feel confused and anxious. Furthermore, when firms use concepts like “fit” to look for students who look and sound like them in the recruitment process, first-gen students face an uphill battle.

However, first-gen students come from all walks of life, and the concerns of a first-gen student who grew up outside of Canada may be entirely different than a first-gen student born and raised in Toronto. First-gen students are themselves as diverse as any other group within the law school, and each will experience challenges and advantages in different ways. There is no simple “one size fits all” approach to the barriers they may face.

In light of these issues, we’ve decided to start the UT Law First Generation Network. Our goals are to (i) connect first-gen students with each other and with successful first-generation lawyers; (ii) actively consult the U of T first-gen community and develop objectives that can address the concerns of all first-gen students; (iii) host panel and social events of interest for first-gen students and others; and (iv) work with firms and the law school to remove barriers to success that first-gen students and many others face in order to promote more equitable access to the wonderful opportunities law school affords.

We hope that the network can function as a forum for first-gen students to share their concerns and learn from one another as well as a vehicle to act on those concerns. We’ve been motivated by the support of both the law school and several Toronto firms, and we’re excited about the wonderful slate of events we have coming up this semester.

Our first event of the semester is a joint event with the Osgoode First Generation Network. It is a panel event discussing current barriers to success faced by first-gen students, and some possible strategies moving forward. A keynote speech will be given by Justice Andromache Karakatsanis of the Supreme Court of Canada, a first-generation student herself. We appreciate the support of Stikeman Elliott LLP in hosting this event, and look forward to continuing this conversation both at the University of Toronto and within the Toronto legal community.

The members of the UTLFGN Executive, and authors of this piece, are David Rybak (1L), Brooke Longhurst (2L), Jessy Van Kooten (1L), Rachel Puma (2L), Forrest Finn (1L)