Third in an occasional series that follows a group of first-generation college students through their freshman year at the elite University of Pennsylvania.
For Carmen Duran, the grits and livermush of home beckoned.
During her first semester at the University of Pennsylvania, Duran, an 18-year-old freshman, tried scrapple, but it lacked the zest of the pig’s liver with hog’s head meat she was used to eating in her native Maiden, N.C.
Over winter break, Duran returned to Maiden and tasted home. The livermush was great, but something had changed.
“I see my hometown and the people there a lot differently,” said Duran, who graduated from high school with a 5.09 grade-point average and became one of 300 first-generation college students in her class of 2,457. A first-generation student is someone whose parents haven’t earned a four-year degree. “I’m so much different. But things for everyone in Maiden seem pretty much the same.
“Now, I’m working to bridge the duality inside me.”
Winter break, which for Penn began Dec. 21 and ended Jan. 9, can be a confusing time for first-generation students and their parents.
Raised in working-class or even impoverished homes, students were suddenly and dramatically broadened during nearly five months of living in a privileged enclave with middle- and upper-class classmates. Their parents, meanwhile, had been left behind to continue living their lives, with not the remotest idea of what college life on an upper-tier campus is like, or how to talk to their children about it.
Related by blood, parents and children are beginning to be separated by class.
Called “crossovers” by Minnesota psychologist Barbara Jensen, first-generation students are moving from the working class to the middle class. In theory, it’s how America is supposed to operate: shuttling people from humble circumstance toward a better life, via education at an elite dream factory.
But being class mobile can have an emotional cost. And freshman winter break is when the drama first plays out.
“It’s the beginning of a sense of two identities,” said Missy Foy, the director of a program that works with low-income and first-generation students at Georgetown University. “It’s the home-me and the school-me coming together. Those worlds collide over winter break, after a semester of being at an elite school. You go home and see your precollege world through a different lens.
“The first winter break is a slap across the face.”
Slurs in the ‘middle of nowhere’
At Penn, Duran’s been studying and thinking about immigration, gay rights, and gentrification. In Maiden, a rural hamlet boasting two stoplights and 3,000 people, “nobody … in the middle of nowhere, thinks about those things,” Duran said.
College has made Duran, who is half-Mexican, more aware of words, and, she said, many in Maiden use the wrong ones — particularly the N-word.
She’d been upset when she heard it before she moved to Philadelphia but never spoke up. After a semester of developing her self-confidence and social conscience, however, she could no longer remain silent.
“I don’t think there’s a place to use those words,” she told people. They didn’t seem offended. Then again, “they didn’t seem to care, either,” Duran said. “People will continue to say it, regardless.”
Despite the slurs, for Duran, Maiden felt comfortable in many ways.
“At home, there are no class differences like at Penn,” populated by kids whose parents have college diplomas, who have a greater sense of belonging there, and who possess the means to enjoy an enriched college experience. “I don’t feel like an outlier at home as much as I do at Penn.
“But that’s nothing I can control.”
Fiery dreams and endless ice
For first-generation Penn student Haley Carbajal, 18, Belle Fourche, S.D., the town she grew up in, suddenly wasn’t as familiar when she visited over winter break.
“I felt distant from my friends, and I wouldn’t say anything when my dad offered his opinions on President Trump’s policies,” she said. Both father and daughter had been Republicans, but, Carbajal said, “I’ve changed pretty drastically.”
Time spent in a public-policy club on campus, as well as in an urban studies class that included visits to a West Philadelphia school each week to help low-income students apply for college, has given Carbajal new perspective.
Beyond that, Penn has instilled confidence in the young woman. “I carry myself a little higher, and I’ve come to realize I’m a very capable person,” she said.
So driven in high school that people felt intimidated by her, Carbajal has found her tribe at Penn, where classmates have validated the fervent dreams that seemed out of place on the Great Plains. “Penn shows me that all those passions I had are possible, and just being around all these people who are accomplished makes you feel like you really can do something,” she said.
One life goal was achieved early, as Carbajal spent part of winter break on a Penn-sponsored trip to Antarctica. Knowing that every minute Carbajal spends in the Penn community takes her further from them, her parents nevertheless held a fund-raiser to help defray costs of the $10,000 trip, the bulk of which was covered by financial aid. “Things are changing permanently,” Carbajal’s father, Anthony, said before school started.
Sitting on a glacier welcoming the new year with 11 others on the weeklong trip, Carbajal was asked what the last year had taught her.
She said: “Coming to Penn shows me I can do anything I set my mind to.”
‘You can learn this’
Going back to Chalfont, Bucks County, for winter break, Anthony Scarpone-Lambert, 18, came to a realization. His parents gave him everything they could, but because he couldn’t ask them questions about chemistry or math, he had to put in extra work at a place like Penn, where so many students had attended advanced high schools and have college-educated parents.
A top student in Chalfont, Scarpone-Lambert initially had some trouble keeping up with highly competitive kids from prep schools during his first Penn semester.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s annoying to be doing a little below average after putting in so many study hours,” he said. “But I went to tutoring, went to study groups, and I met with my professors, and things improved.
“You could either say, ‘That’s it, I’m done,’ or you could say, ‘You can learn this.’
“Being first-generation, I’m even more motivated to advance my life, and it adds some extra fire.”
Feeling as if she belongs
For Daisy Angeles, 18, a first-generation freshman from Yakima, Wash., and the oldest of seven children of immigrant parents from Oaxaca, Mexico, winter homecoming included a blunt assessment from friends:
“You seem like a different person.”
Their talk about life at state college seemed foreign to Angeles, informed by Penn’s unrelenting rigor.
“A lot of things they said about college — how it’s easy to continue to be a straight-A student like in high school, or how it’s not hard to have a job and go to school — that’s not what I experienced at Penn,” she said.
Angeles also found herself looking at the fields where immigrants like her family work, remembering how, not that long ago, she felt that her background among farmhands couldn’t prepare her for an Ivy League school.
“I felt like an impostor,” she said. “At first, first-generation kids don’t believe they belong at Penn.”
But Angeles said she worked hard and now there simply aren’t that many days when she questions her legitimacy as a Penn student.
“I have less impostor syndrome,” she said. “And I feel like I belong.”
Her friends were right, she acknowledged. She is different.
“I’m more confident,” Angeles said, recognizing that she is now a working-class woman becoming educated in a middle-class world.
If she and other first-generation students understand that they don’t have to feel torn, that they can be both home-me and school-me at once, Foy of Georgetown said, they’ll be better off.
“If you don’t have to pick just one world to live in,” she said, “you’ll be a much happier person.”