The shifting identity of a first-generation university student


By Ellie Spenceley, Second Year English

For as long as I can remember, my experience in education has brought upon me a lot of questions surrounding where in my world I most ‘fit in’. Growing up in the London Borough of Camden, and going to a state secondary school that closely contained working/ middle class communities, I have continuously found myself being forced to question whether my interest in academia, and subsequent high academic achievement, was at odds with my working class background. Being at the ‘top of my class’ in a lot of subjects and the projection being that I was to be the first person in my family to go to university, as I came of age it often felt like the divide between my family/ home life and social/ school life was exponentially increasing to the point of no repair.

Culture and academia should not be things gatekept by the wealthier classes, but it felt as though as my interest and understanding of literature and various arts deepened, my ability to relate to my working class family and have points of shared interest to bond over weakened. I went to school, found myself surrounded by people from middle class families who seemed to have almost inherited their cultural capital in a way I had to build from school curriculum and personal endeavour alone, only to return home to my council flat where it felt like my budding cultural interests had to be compartmentalised if I wanted to speak with my family.

In my English class, I was being considered as on equal academic wavelength as a girl whose mother had published feminist books I had seen in the Tate Modern, a girl who I remember arguing in one lesson that £1 million was not actually a lot to live on in London. As someone who then qualified for free school meals, such blissful ignorance did make me feel jealous, but also provoked a lot of confusion surrounding how I was able to relate to this girl in some way, despite feeling so opposed to her socioeconomically. This feeling seemed to mirror the one felt at home with my parents, and thus seemed to help me come to the conclusion that if I was to pursue the path of further education, I was to commit to a constant feeling of alienation regardless of where I stood.

There were even moments in my teenage years where my mother would accuse me of being ‘ashamed’ of my background because I wanted to excel beyond it by having interests that didn’t align with hers. It bothers me now that our society’s judgemental high/ low cultural dichotomy caused familial rifts at a time of self-actualisation, the remnants of which stick with me as I enter into adulthood, attempting to understand myself in this liminal space between belonging via birth vs belonging via the social mobility my parents were perhaps not afforded.

It is not that there was any lack of love or support at home – indeed, I extend eternal gratitude to my family despite their dysfunction for all the encouragement they gave me. It simply felt as though there was a dissonance growing that prevented me from being my full self whether I was at school or at home. With my peers, I felt as though I could ‘pass’ as middle class and people often told me they assumed as much – but the contrast between cultural assimilation and economic dissonance was something that I always felt hyperaware of.

It bothers me in retrospect to observe how acutely conscious I was of class from such a young age, and how much of a topic of conversation such matters were in my social circles. I even have a memory from as far back as my primary school residential trip, where I was discussing with my then best friend about the fact that she was middle class and I was working class, to which she responded that I ‘act’ middle class and can be if I choose to be. It seems like this performative identity never quite went away, and I still feel it manifesting at twenty years old in my second year at university.

My feelings of displacement as an academic working-class teenager were only amplified by my transition to university and the addition of the ‘first-generation student’ label. If I thought I had encountered the dizzying heights of wealth before arriving at university, I was definitely wrong. My first year was crammed with the realisation that there were people even more privileged than my middle-class school friends, people who had country estates to rival my council estate, trust funds that meant they never had to nervously check their mobile banking with dimmed screen lighting on a night out before buying drinks, collective memories of private/ boarding school customs that still seem Potter-esque to me.

It has never really been the state/ private divide that has left me with feelings of envy, but rather the fact that individuals of higher class at university seem to have a sense of their identity that is less fragmented than mine. University attendance seems to them an almost hereditary given, rather than a cause for accolade and prodigious distinguishment. The way they carry themselves in seminar discussion and put forward their ideas with such confidence, it is as though their dinner-table chats throughout their youth had trained them for these days in a manner myself and peers of similar social standing simply cannot relate to. It’s as simple as being able to bring up Woolf or Tennyson or Eliot or Plath at home and have a family member rear their head in interest or even acknowledgement.

It has never really been the state/ private divide that has left me with feelings of envy, but rather the fact that individuals of higher class at university seem to have a sense of their identity that is less fragmented than mine.

Spreading myself thin in order to connect with the various different people in my life is something that is second-nature to me now. I hold no personal resentment – indeed, one could argue that it is a privilege in itself to be able to have a foot in so many different walks of life and to be able to understand socioeconomics with such personal nuance – but instead I simply find it interesting how different my journey to the Modernist Zoom seminar may have been from peers of more heightened privilege.

My constant need to acclimatise has however caused me to feel institutional and societal discontent towards the systems that force me to constantly ‘choose a side’. Whilst I am grateful for the rise of social mobility schemes, societies like The 93% Club, outreach programmes that encourage university application from areas of low-attainment, I still do think there is a way to go before we stop seeing the working-class academic as an anomaly, rather than a norm valued by academic spheres.

Featured Image: Epigram / Robin Connolly