By: Sophie Gettros
In August, I received the following Facebook message from a high school classmate:
“My little sister is starting at Mac in September. She’s terrified, and none of us have any advice to give her.”
The new McMaster student was disabled, so I helped her figure out how to access academic accommodations. She was LGBTQ+ identified, so I showed her where the QSCC was. She was a first generation student, and I had no idea how to help her.
Numerous studies have shown that first generation students have distinct needs from their peers. They are more likely to be part-time or non-traditional students, more likely to live off campus, more likely to work, more likely to receive OSAP, more likely to be student parents and more likely to access food support such as the Mac Bread Bin during their time at McMaster. In colleges and universities across North America, there have been concerted efforts to provide the support these students need to meet their unique challenges.
McMaster, on the other hand, can’t even tell you how many first-generation students are currently attending the school.
Although the Student Success Centre has recently revived their First Gen programming, including peer mentors and access to career counseling, there are many areas of university life where the needs of first-gen students are simply not taken into account. Accessibility is a buzzword that is thrown around a lot in student government circles, and last year’s presidential and VP elections included references to every possible kind of accessibility and every possible kind of barrier — except for financial accessibility.
While the subject occasionally comes up when there is yet another debate about adding an extra dollar to the MSU student fee, it almost never comes up when discussing the length of SRA meetings, the remuneration for PTMs and other MSU employees, or the ratio of volunteer-to-paid positions available in the MSU. In my time at McMaster, I have seen otherwise eloquent and progressive members of the SRA hit a mental wall when they are asked about first generation students: all of the first generation student programming offered at McMaster comes through the Student Success Centre and the university itself, rather than the MSU.
This programming is not a substitute for student-run initiatives, just as the existence of the Equity and Inclusion Office is not a substitute for MSU Diversity Services. On seemingly every other axis of oppression, we understand that peer support and community programming is most effective when it comes from students who share an identity. We are able to understand that academia is a system built on the systemic exclusion of women, disabled people and racialized people, but somehow forget that it is also built on the exclusion of the working class. The MSU not only fails to alleviate this exclusion, it actively contributes to it.
Student government is by and large financially inaccessible to first generation students: 10 hour SRA meetings do not neatly fit alongside multiple part time jobs and family commitments. There are few paid positions within the MSU, and very few are paid a living wage. For every paid position that is posted on the MSU website, there are half a dozen volunteer positions. And if you are unable to commit many hours of free
labour to the MSU via volunteer positions, you are unlikely to even be considered for one of the paid roles.
Failing to address equity on campus has real world consequences. Studies have shown that first-generation students with degrees fare worse on every socioeconomic measure than their middle class peers — even if those peers did not attend or complete university.
It’s time for the MSU to recognize first-generation students as an equity-seeking group with unique needs, and it is long past time for our needs to be considered on the same level as any other marginalized group. There is nothing progressive about politics that leaves people behind.