The first-gen journey of Parwinder Grewal

College is a difficult experience for many, but those whose parents attended college themselves often have an advantage, whether they are aware of it or not. First-generation students inevitably enter college life with less knowledge of its ins and outs than their multi-generational counterparts. When first-gen students graduate, however, they are in possession of not only a degree, but also a rich experience that makes them uniquely qualified to relate to people of many different backgrounds. Parwinder Grewal, the inaugural president of Vermont State University and a former first-gen student, is an excellent example of this.

Grewal was raised on a small farm in a small town in India. With his father spending much of his time working on Indian railroads away from home, Grewal and his two brothers spent nearly all of their time learning the value of hard work.

They woke up in the early mornings to work the farm, went to school, and then came home to do more manual labor on the farm. “Growing up was tough,” said Grewal in a Basement Medicine interview. “It was hard, hot summers, [and a] dusty environment. I wanted to do something better. I wanted to get out of that environment to do bigger things. That’s what motivated me to pursue my education in school, but also beyond.”

Grewal’s parents funded both of his brothers’ college educations but were not able to afford the same opportunity for him. This was understandably very difficult for Grewal to accept. Really, it was impossible for him to accept – which is why he didn’t.

“Once it came time that they would not be able to put me through college, I cried,” says Grewal. “I knew that I was a little better than my brothers. I had higher marks, I was better in school; I was always the top student.”

Knowing his strengths as a student, Vermont State University’s first president was determined to attend college and continue to develop his mind. When he learned about merit scholarships, he went to his parents with a proposal that would allow him to further his education.

“I found out that there is a merit scholarship that I can get next year,” he recalls telling his parents, “not in the first year, but [in the] second year. If you put me through college for the first year, I will work so hard that I will earn their scholarship.” Grewal’s proposal was accepted, which was the beginning of a rich journey through higher education and well beyond.

In order to further persuade his parents to help fund that first year of college, he made an additional promise not to live on campus, but to stay at home and continue working on the farm instead.

Being able to afford a college education was not the hardest part, however, as is true with many first-generation college students. Grewal emphasized that the biggest struggle among first-gen students is not knowing how the system works, noting he thought there are two types of not knowing among first-generation students.

The first is not having enough resources, and the second is having many resources. He said that first-gen students with many resources, such as those whose parents are well off despite not having a college education, might have financial support, but do not often have intellectual support. That is to say that these students have the resources to afford college, but do not have support in learning how to navigate college life and coursework.

Students who don’t have enough resources are at an additional disadvantage, especially because their “not knowing” extends to their lack of knowledge concerning scholarships and other resources that are there to help fund their college educations. Furthermore, those who lack sufficient financial resources often live in areas with fewer opportunities.

These opportunities include professional internships, college counseling, and learning equipment in schools. Without these opportunities, students have more difficulty building a college portfolio, discovering their passions (i.e., what they might want to study in college and/or make a career out of), and understanding what it means to be a college student.

“Both of those students [struggle with] not knowing what is expected of them, what resources there are that they could take advantage of, [or] how college works,” says Grewal. “There are so many things that they don’t know, so they cannot really access resources by themselves. They need help.”

Grewal says the problems facing first-gen students have not changed much over the decades since he began university. While there are more scholarships and grant programs that have been created to help first-generation students, those students still do not often know how to find those resources and best utilize them. “What still needs to be changed is inspiring every student in K-12,” says Grewal, “that no matter what hurdles [they face], they can make it. They can go to college. There are resources out there that they can access to go to college.”

This does not, however, mean that first-generation students cannot do well in college, much less that they cannot do as well as their multi-generational peers. Grewal is a prime example of this. All that this lack of resources – whether financial, intellectual, or both – means is that first-generation students have to work a little harder to achieve the same goals. Grewal’s advice for first-generation students is to work hard and talk to people. He says that it is best not to be shy, and to seek out help even if it doesn’t feel needed at the time. “Talk to your professors,” he says.  “Even if you don’t have a question related to the subject, just talk to the professor because they’ll end up talking about something. That something could turn into something more… Your horizons – your knowledge – will grow with that talk.”

Sitting in the TRiO office during this interview, Grewal stressed the importance of this program, which offers support for first-generation students, as well as those from families with low or modest income and/or have a documented disability. TRiO’s mission is a perfect fit with the mission that Grewal has for Vermont State University. “In fact,” he says, “I would like our entire university to function as if it is funded by the TRiO grants.”

Grewal’s vision for Vermont State University (VTSU) is centered around the student and their success. “Every student’s success is important to me personally,” he says. “We would fail if we fail our students … That needs to be the core of the new university; every student is important. Every student must succeed. Otherwise, we are not using public resources in a good way.”

To bring this vision to life, Grewal’s mission is threefold. The first part of this is to create a state-wide hybrid university. To him, this means increasing and enhancing access to higher education, especially for non-traditional students. This hybrid model will allow students to have access to a diverse college education even if they have to work or are unable to live on or transport themselves to a VTSU campus.

The second part of Grewal’s mission for VTSU is to build the university as a “community-engaged university,” which will allow professors and students to work with community leaders to learn from each other and to find solutions to local problems. He hopes that this will enhance the local communities and inspire students to create their own goals for the future.

Finally, Grewal intends to form VTSU into a “career-ready university” by further preparing its students for the workforce. “Our goal,” says Grewal while discussing the third piece of his mission for VTSU, “would be that one-hundred percent of our students gain some kind of industry-relevant credential before they graduate, no matter what major.”

He noted that students who have chosen fields such as nursing or engineering most likely have jobs waiting for them upon graduation, or will at least have an easier time finding jobs because their educational field is directly related to their intended jobs. Students majoring in fields such as liberal arts, however, often do not have a direct alignment between their majors and the jobs that they want. For these students, Grewal believes, having an industry-relevant credential will not only help them find a job, but also to have greater success in doing that job. These “microcredentials,” as they will be called, could be in anything from technical writing to proficiency with Excel.

“This university will be [a] people’s university,” says Grewal when speaking about the overarching goal of VTSU. “We want to build this university as an inclusive university rather than as an exclusive university. Some universities brag about being ‘exclusive,’ openly stating that they only admit the top four percent of [their] applicants; they exclude so many others. This university would say any student is welcome to study with us – any student, no matter how prepared or ill-prepared they are.”

Grewal states that the admission standards for applicants will not change, but the support systems surrounding them will. He said he wants to create more programs for students who don’t meet admission standards; he wants to work with them to overcome the deficiencies in their applications. “We need to have the will to help these students succeed,” he says. “We want to be the people’s inclusive university, where everybody is welcome to seek opportunities in higher education and make their life better.”

First-generation students are not without help, and certainly not without hope. Every student can succeed, according to Parwinder Grewal, if only they have the support to do so. Grewal, who knows firsthand the difficulties of going into education without much knowledge on how to succeed, is determined to provide future generations with this knowledge, not only to help them succeed, but also to prove to them that they can.