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Roy Poelstra

First-generation student Roy: When will I fail?

Published on 11-04-2023 17:47
If you are the first in the family to study, you'll often find it harder to find your way within the university and on the job market. Roy Poelstra was such a first-generation student. He is now doing his PhD at the UvA. He gives tips and shares how he experienced his time at university.
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Due to his parents' addiction problems, Roy spent much of his childhood living in children's homes and in foster care. 'My parents didn't study or work,' Roy explains. 'I am a first-generation student, but I was lucky to grow up with foster parents who did study.' In 2020, he saw the Dutch documentary 'Klassen' about the struggle for equal opportunities in education in the Netherlands. The documentary shows the importance of parents supporting you. Not only financially but also by giving you the right cultural capital. The series motivated him to get involved with other first-generation students through 'De Eerste Generatie': a mentoring programme for students whose parents did not study (in the Netherlands).

What does a first-generation student encounter?

'The difference is sometimes at a very subtle level,' Roy explains. 'It can even be about the right way of talking. There are certain cultural norms in society that you need to understand to get by in a social environment like at the university or in the workplace. For example, in the legal profession and the central government, they are increasingly demanding extra-curricular activities from students. That's something you need to know.'

It also makes a difference whether you are encouraged to study at home. Roy hears from first-generation students that they were asked at home: 'Is studying really necessary? Just go and work because then you can earn money.' He himself could complain at home about exam weeks. His foster parents understood what he was doing and supported him. 'That dragged me through it.' I still get help from my foster mother. When I write an article, she checks it. Those are the little things that give you extra baggage to keep going.'

'The danger is that you start ruling things out for yourself'

What Roy still suffers from is insecurity. In the documentary 'Klassen', he saw 3 girls who were now in pre-university education. They said to each other that they still doubt whether they belong there. 'I recognise that feeling.' He was pigeonholed from childhood. From the children's home, he did not go to a regular primary school, but to special education. In secondary school, the question was whether he could cope with pre-vocational secondary education at all. 'Eventually I was at pre-university education within 3 years, but that's where my insecurity comes from. You are always lower rated because of your parents.' To this day, he has the feeling: When will I fail?

He never imagined that he's now getting a PhD. 'That felt like something I couldn't do and which was meant for a different target group.' Until he was asked to apply as a result of his thesis. 'I think that's where the danger lies: that you start ruling out certain things for yourself.'

Talk about it and find a mentor

If Roy can give one tip to first-generation students it is: 'Talk about it and realise that you are not alone in your insecurity. There are more people than you think who encounter barriers.' You can turn to a mentor from The First Generation, for example.

In conversation with: First Generation Young Professionals, 19 April

Want to get in touch with other first-generation students? At the In conversation with: First Generation Younf Professionals on 19 April, Roy and other first-generation students will share their experiences. They will talk about what they encountered during their studies and on the job market. Among the speakers are people that are working as attorneys at law. There is plenty of room to ask them questions and to share your own examples. They will also give tips on how to deal with difficult situations.