On the evening of September 20th, The Sociological Cinema screened First Generation, a documentary following four high school seniors who each hope to become first-generation college students. The screening promised to be followed by an interesting conversation, and because these screenings are open to the public I could bring my 12-year-old son along. After all, my own college application story is closer to that of the kids in the film than it will be to my own son’s, and my own class mobility frequently leaves me wishing that my children understood more about how variable the experience of kids is across the country. Maybe the film could help with that.
In the film four teenagers – two female, three of color, two from families with a recent history of immigration to the US – celebrate their last year of high school and negotiate the increasingly complex college application process, all while continually reevaluating their own wishes for their lives and everything that those wishes may cost. The costs range between the students – they all worry about paying for it, but more than that there are family and cultural ties that feel threatened by their ambitions to try something new, something more and a little foreign. Interspliced throughout the narratives of the students are commentary from teachers and guidance counselors struggling to support a large student body with diverse needs and education experts who understand all too well the challenges faced by these students, the limitations that school support systems can offer them, and the consequences for those students and the country as a whole.
After the film a brief but vibrant conversation traced the difficulties each of the four students faced, with the audience sharing their own stories of first generation higher education. The audience pushed back a little at where the stories end and wished the film could have explored the ways post-secondary institutions could decrease the attrition rates of first generation students; getting to college is only the first part of the job, after all. Nicole DeLoatch, a graduate student in the department of sociology, also found the discussion of the supportive mentorship that guidance counselors and high school teachers can provide particularly compelling.
We missed the conversation, of course, because after 95 minutes my son had taken in just about all he could; the film recounts accurately mixed outcomes for the four students, and there’s only so much understanding and compassion a 12-year-old boy can muster before he needs to get out of his seat and return to his own bubble of self-absorption. On the drive home, though, we talked about my own experiences at that age, and he was surprised to learn just how much I identified with the students who feared leaving their families behind to go on to something a little bit different. As the son of two over-educated parents, college has always been assumed to be part of his future, and attending Bethesda-Chevy Chase public schools has done nothing to convince him that life could be otherwise. But we also talked about what all the students in the film had in common, and what he is just beginning to understand – fear of the future mixed with hope for something new.
Information about the film, including a list of upcoming screenings around the country, can be found at http://firstgenerationfilm.com/index.php. Thanks are due to Nicole DeLoatch for her summary of the discussion following the film.
Carrie is a 2nd year PhD student.