Erin Johnston, 1GLI

My StoryErin Johnston

Neither of my parents graduated from college. My father, the primary breadwinner of my family, died suddenly during my sophomore year of high school. When applying to colleges, I knew that I would need to support myself financially along the way. I chose Rutgers University, a relatively affordable, large, public university in New Jersey. I received grants, scholarships, and loans to cover my tuition and worked part-time as a grocery store clerk throughout my undergraduate career to pay for housing and food. Still, I didn’t explicitly identify as a first-gen and/or low income student until I started my doctoral studies at Princeton University, where few of my classmates shared similar experiences. Many, in fact, were themselves children of professors (or doctors or lawyers). During grad school, I came to understand more clearly how my background mattered. Things that seemed to come naturally to my peers, felt strange and uncomfortable for me. It took me longer to identify and master the “hidden curriculum” and unwritten norms of academia. I made a lot of mistakes. I rarely felt comfortable, let alone at home, in these elite academic spaces. I still sometimes struggle with impostor syndrome–feeling like I don’t belong here.

These experiences, however, have taught me a lot. I am more aware of and attentive to the range of challenges and responsibilities many undergraduate students have both on and off campus. They have also made me more committed and dedicated to exposing the hidden curriculum and making academic life more accessible and welcoming for others. I am always happy to grab a cup of coffee or lunch, share my experiences, and offer whatever advice I can on how to navigate higher education and academic life. Please don’t hesitate to reach out!