From education to employment

The ‘first-gen’ experience: a reflection from a previous HKF bursary winner – Jake Marshall

Jake Marshall
@TheHKF – At the time, my earlier years of education felt normal. Just like the rest of the students in my area, I was learning a well-trodden curriculum in the backdrop of a seaside town. Life felt easy, problems appeared small and the world outside of my town’s bubble seemed non-existent. Fairly naïve in thought, I began to contemplate the ‘university or to not university’ question in 2014. While scrutinising this decision with my family, I ironically unravelled what I didn’t have access to. At this  I was consequently introduced to the term ‘first-gen’.

A ‘first-generation’ student, in my context, can be defined as a student whose parents did not attend university. Chucking in a middle-income household plus a town with the lowest access rates to higher education in the country, the burden became significant. It meant that I didn’t always have access to the educational resources I would have liked. It meant that I often felt undeserving to be learning amongst students from more privileged backgrounds. It meant that my parents were unable to understand my Harvard referencing stresses.

With the ‘first-gen’ label, it is very easy, and natural I guess, to firstly focus on your deficit. What you don’t know. What you don’t think is possible. All influenced by your background and irrespective of your evidenced potential. It was only after some time and support from social mobility charities such as HKF and the Sutton Trust, that I began to see a flip side to the label. ‘First-gen’ can serve as a real opportunity.

Through the charities’ initiatives, I gained access to sponsored summer schools at leading institutions (my first time staying on a university campus), dedicated support to undertake admission tests, access to bursaries and even mentors for me to ask silly questions about the things I simply didn’t know. With this support, I became empowered, certain and directed. Going into that eventual ‘university or to not university’ verdict, I knew I had many resources and people on my side. 

Fast-forward two years post-graduation, I personally look back triumphantly in the knowledge of the adversities I overcame, but recognise social mobility still remains a huge issue. To date, visible and invisible barriers, in various forms, can stop widening-participation students from seamlessly engaging in our higher education system. It is not a pleasant experience, and we must work twice as hard to reach a level where the adversity we represent does not cloud our own self-belief.

Since my bursary, I have been thrilled to volunteer back at HKF and see the great work and equality they continue to advocate for. The bursary made a huge difference to my studies, and I cannot thank the team enough for their support. ‘First-gens’ rock. 

Jake Marshall

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