First Generation

I was asked by one of the Widening Participation Officers at the University of Surrey if I could write something for schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds about what it was like to be the first generation in my family to go to university, so this is that.

In 2004 I became the first person in my family to go to university. Now I have a doctorate, and am looking at jobs where I can help other people with Ph.Ds to achieve more. This is the story of what it was like to get to where I am now, some of the challenges that I overcame along the way, and why I think that being first generation has actually been a good thing for me.


For as long as I can remember, my mother has cleaned things for a living. Nowadays, my father does too, but before that he worked in a supermarket warehouse.

Coming from the working class, money and a house were always priorities. Like most other kids, I went to a state primary school. Thanks to my 11+ results though, I later went to a girl’s Grammar school.

As I went through the school, I became aware that some of my classmates were a lot better off than I was. Their parents had nice houses and cars, they used the latest technology and wore fashionable clothes. They also seemed to have exciting sounding jobs. Sometimes, when I would hear what other people’s parents did, I was surprised that such a job existed.

Despite this, from the age of 11, I always knew that I would go to university. At my school, it was what all the students did. I wanted to have letters after my name like the teachers did.

When I started thinking about which university to go to, my parents weren’t interested. They had their own problems to worry about, and so I had to decide things for myself. I chose to study physics because it was the subject I enjoyed most. I chose universities with high entry grades because they seemed like they should be the better ones. Nowadays things are a bit different, and you should probably think about it a bit more than I did. I should have thought more about it too, but it didn’t seem to be hugely important compared to the other stuff I was doing with my life.

I was lucky that there are lots of jobs open to people who do physics. You should definitely think carefully about what subject to study, because of what jobs you might (or might not) be able to do afterwards.

I made all the loan applications myself, with no money to come from my parents, who were now divorced. They had no money to give to me. Because of this I was awarded the maximum amount of money possible, with extra grants every year as well. It has left me in a huge amount of debt, but because I’ve applied myself and gained additional qualifications, I am confident that I will be able to handle the repayments.

When I first got to university, I remember being surprised that a lot of the other students had gone to private schools. I had no idea that so many other people could do that. Some of those students didn’t seem to cope very well though; they couldn’t do their own washing, couldn’t cook good meals for themselves, and didn’t seem to tidy up after themselves either.

Because I didn’t have extra money coming from my parents, I had to be careful with how I spent my student loan. It covered everything I needed, and some of the things I wanted, but I did have to be careful. I knew I had to make it last til the next installment, because I didn’t have anyone I could ask for more if I ran out.

In lectures, I really worked hard. I knew how much I was paying to be here, and I knew that a good degree would be better for me. I made lots of friends who could help me with work if I needed them to, and asked lecturers for help too. Lecturers were really happy to help me if I asked them in the right way.

I took on some other jobs to earn some more money, they involved tutoring other students. I found that I got better at my own subject because I had to think about it in the simplest terms.

A lot of my other friends at university didn’t have to take on other jobs like I did, but that didn’t stop me from doing as well as, or better than them.

I got a first class degree in physics, and then my supervisor asked if I would like to stay and do a Ph.D. I said yes. A lot of other people left to apply to take jobs in graduate schemes, but here was a job that I could take now, and I was interested enough in the subject to want to learn more. Plus, it would get me more letters after my name.

Because I had worked other jobs while I was studying, I had practise at managing my time and prioritising things. These came in useful while I was doing a Ph.D.

I finished my doctorate in 2012. I’ve had another research job since then, but now I’m more interested in helping other people like me, and so I’m looking for jobs that do that.

Because I have a doctorate, I feel like I have more chance of getting into a career that I will enjoy, that is related to the subject I studied at university, but I’m finding that I still don’t know what specific jobs there are that I can do.

Other people seem to have a better idea of what jobs they can do with their degrees, or can get help and advice from friends or family in high-powered jobs. When I want to know more about what it might be like to work in industry or in the media, I have had to find the people myself, and persuade them to help me.

You might think that being first generation has put me at a disadvantage, but I think it’s been good for me. I have more confidence in speaking to people, especially people that I don’t know. I am better at listening to people, because I realise they are giving up their time to speak to me. I learn things quickly because I know I might not get the chance to learn it again, and I take any opportunities for training and skills for the same reason.

When someone offers me an opportunity to do something that will be good for me, I take it.

While other people don’t think about doing anything other than what their parents did, I feel like I have more options. I do still worry about money. When I change jobs, sometimes I have to make a quick decision and later find out that it isn’t quite right for me, but I do my best to learn from it, to use it as an opportunity to develop more skills, and then move on.

I try to make the best of whatever I get, and use it to get better things next time.


About nicolajrolfe

Dr. Nicola J. Rolfe is currently looking for her next opportunity to make a big splash in East Kent industry.
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