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.