Advice for First Generation LIS Students

I come from a family that doesn’t have work email, retirement stocks, or salaries. My parents and siblings, my “people,” are name tag and hairnet people. Clock-out for your lunch break people. With four older siblings, I was the first to graduate high school and then the first in my family to go to college. Now, as I finish my last year of graduate school, I continue to reconcile the distance between my “working poor” upbringing with my professional future.

It’s a terrifying and privileged distance, to be a first-generation college student. The distance started long before college or grad school. In grade school, I was aware of all my selves: my school self, my home self, my true self. For me, the library was a refuge for that true self. It was the sweet spot, where I could admit to not knowing and begin to explore communities of ideas. I imagine leagues of first-generation librarians who hold this same kernel of an experience at the center of their professional story.

Two of my favorite librarians, Cecily Walker (@skeskali) and Sarah Crissinger (@SarahCrissinger), have done a better job discussing Bridging the Experience Gap for first-generation librarians, organizing a first gen #L1S Twitter conversation, and highlighting the importance of first gen discussions in the profession. You should go read those things. What I want to offer, are just a few notes for my fellow first-generation college students, as we navigate library school and prepare for the profession together.

Professionalism can seem like a ‘black box.’ Know that you have what it takes to get there. You already have it. 
I feel awkward in most professional attire. For me, this is not just a first gen thing (see the very important “Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship” on intersectionality in LIS). And networking is just as much a personality issue for me as a first-gen issue. But it’s important to recognize that first-gen professionals may have even more persistent doubts when stepping into professional arenas. Matching their tone, retracing the familiar treads of small talk, giving a nod to the jargon, all the while, worrying, “Am I doing it? Do I pass?” Don’t worry, you’re doing it.

As a first-gen librarian, what aspect of the profession seems especially mysterious to you? For me it, it’s management and professional leadership. My family has always worked hard, but done what they’re told, and I’ve had my share of library paraprofessional and service jobs. But now, I have ambitions of taking on management responsibilities and growing as a leader in the profession. What does that even look like? Start with baby steps. If it’s leadership, start with engaging in a student org, advocating for LIS issues, or attending a leadership symposium or workshop. Read what others are saying (see Library Lost and Found for stellar insights into library leadership and management).

You are not alone, but you may need to start the conversation. If you’re looking for a community of other first-generation librarians and grad students, you may need to start the conversation. You could approach your student organization, professors, or your program’s administration to see how to gather other first gen professionals into the conversation.

You can also look more broadly. Your campus may have support services for first gen students–including professional, academic and financial advisors. As an undergraduate, I met my best friends and life-long support through TRiO and the McNair Scholars program.  Your campus may also offer a support group for first gen students through counseling services. Stanford even offers a library internship program for first generation college students.

You have something special to give. Patience and compassion for job seekers, for language and technology learners, for explorers of fictional worlds. Gratitude for every single person who approaches your reference desk or attends your workshop. Their ability to admit they don’t know something and to do something about it is the same thing that got you where you are. You have experiences that make you uniquely qualified to connect people to information in ways that could transform their lives. You belong in this profession.


I want to hear your reactions and experiences as first gen professionals in LIS. What issues have come up as you navigate grad school and the profession? Share your advice with us!

Editor’s note: this post was originally published September 15, 2015.

21 replies

  1. I’m a first generation professional. My mother once said (after I got my MLIS degree) “One of these days you’ll have to sit me down and tell me exactly what it is you studied”. I certainly have my fair share of imposter syndrome, but I tend not to connect it to my family’s socio-economic history or “first gen” status. Uncertainty and feeling like a fraud is something that most people feel at some point, and, to me, that’s actually comforting. It’s not just me or people like me that feel this way – it’s everybody. It’s just natural anxiety in this circumstance and means I’m not actually a fraud (probably).


    • It was comforting for me to, to read here and to see elsewhere, that we all experience doubt and uncertainty. Grad school is a huge period of growth/transition for everyone. I know it’s also grounding for me to connect it to the first gen experience, mostly just to know that there are others that have had similar, but often unspoken, concerns.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a first gen college student and professional, however, I do have cousins who have pursed the same level of education I have in their respective fields. All of us our first genners. Yet, I don’t feel out of place in professional attire. My mom has been a receptionist for many year, so she taught me how to dress professionally. It’s still not completely my style, but I’ve found professional clothes that are. Networking is another story. I don’t “get” it. My issues was paperwork problems when applying that were on my university’s end, and paying for the degree. I don’t feel out of place though. In fact I feel at home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing! Compared to what I’ve done in the past, I definitely feel at home in the library profession. We tend to be enthusiastic, geeky, and generally inclusive in how we share our passions and interests. I think of it as a perfect fit for many first-gen students.


      • You’re welcome! I hear ya on past jobs. I was a receptionist in a very big and busy car dealership in library school (my mother has done this at the same dealership I was at for 11 years), I couldn’t wait to leave. I can’t tell you how many times I got yelled at or cursed at by costumers, or insulted. This is so much more a better fit for me.


  3. “Gratitude for every single person who approaches your reference desk or attends your workshop. Their ability to admit they don’t know something and to do something about it is the same thing that got you where you are.” This is such great insight! As one of the first in my family to pursue an advanced degree, your points resonate with me. Thanks for writing!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thank you for sharing this! I’m a first gen starting my MLIS this month, and this topic has been on my mind as I prepare for my program. I’m glad to know there are many others who share similar backgrounds and are willing to engage on the subject!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post. I just started my MLIS this fall – 20 years after following in the family tradition of dropping out of high school to work. In addition to recurring feelings of “impostor syndrome” coming from being a first-gen professional, I’m get doubled up with “late to the party syndrome.” Thank you so much for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Scott, your comment means a lot and you’re doing a brave thing! Up until recently, my stepdad held the same job he had since high school. Making a career change after 2+ decades is so hard. The benefit of being “late to the party” is that you can put school in a larger context, to see beyond the grades, and to really get what you need out of the grad school experience. I hope you have a great MLIS journey. Thanks for reading!


  6. I wasn’t able to get much out of services for first gen grad students, but accessing mental health services was extremely helpful when my imposter syndrome led to me breaking down right before finals my second semester.

    Never be afraid to access help getting through if you need it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Meg, thanks so much for that reminder. There’s so much pressure near the end of the term, but there’s also a lot of wonderful who can help put things in perspective. I’m glad you were able to find the courage to seek help when you needed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This really resonated with me. I ended up in a leadership position early in my career, which was lucky because it forced me off of the deep end. Initially, I never even considered librarianship because getting a master’s degree wasn’t even on my radar- undergrad was a such a huge milestone in my family of origin that a master’s seemed ludicrous.

    I think networking, and particularly conference attendance and the writing/presenting/research portions of my job as an academic librarian really cause my first-gen mindset to flare up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing Amanda! I’m interested to know what your first reactions were to leadership/management and how your perspective has changed, as you’ve gained more leadership experience…

      Professional research/writing can be a struggle for me too. The best thing I can do for myself when that happens, is to go to someone I trust and work out my first draft with their encouragement and critique.


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