The ‘first-gen’ experience: a reflection from a previous HKF bursary winner – Jake Marshall

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At the time, my earlier years of education felt normal. Just like the rest of the students in my area, I
was learning a well-trodden curriculum in the backdrop of a seaside town. Life felt easy, problems
appeared small and the world outside of my town’s bubble seemed non-existent. Fairly naïve in
thought, I began to contemplate the ‘university or to not university’ question in 2014. While
scrutinising this decision with my family, I ironically unravelled what I didn’t have access to. At this
time, I was consequently introduced to the term ‘first-gen’.

A ‘first-generation’ student, in my context, can be defined as a student whose parents did not attend
university. Chucking in a middle-income household plus a town with the lowest access rates to
higher education in the country, the burden became significant. It meant that I didn’t always have
access to the educational resources I would have liked. It meant that I often felt undeserving to be
learning amongst students from more privileged backgrounds. It meant that my parents were unable
to understand my Harvard referencing stresses.

With the ‘first-gen’ label, it is very easy, and natural I guess, to firstly focus on your deficit. What you
don’t know. What you don’t think is possible. All influenced by your background and irrespective of
your evidenced potential. It was only after some time and support from social mobility charities such
as HKF and the Sutton Trust, that I began to see a flip side to the label. ‘First-gen’ can serve as a real

Through the charities’ initiatives, I gained access to sponsored summer schools at leading
institutions (my first time staying on a university campus), dedicated support to undertake admission
tests, access to bursaries and even mentors for me to ask silly questions about the things I simply
didn’t know. With this support, I became empowered, certain and directed. Going into that eventual
‘university or to not university’ verdict, I knew I had many resources and people on my side.

Fast-forward two years post-graduation, I personally look back triumphantly in knowledge of the
adversities I overcame, but recognise social mobility still remains a huge issue. To date, visible and
invisible barriers, in various forms, can stop widening-participation students from seamlessly
engaging in our higher education system. It is not a pleasant experience, and we must work twice as
hard to reach a level where the adversity we represent does not cloud our own self-belief.

Since my bursary, I have been thrilled to volunteer back at HKF and see the great work and equality
they continue to advocate for. The bursary made a huge difference to my studies, and I cannot thank
the team enough for their support. ‘First-gens’ rock.