More importantly, though, Mackenzie characterized herself first-generation because she identified with the label. After the abuse she experienced, she did not consider herself to have parents. As Harvard professor Anthony Jack put it, “the university is so focussed on what box she checked, and not the conditions—her lack of access to the material, emotional, and social resources of a family—that made her identify with that box.”
The New Yorker called Mackenzie’s story “more complex than institutional categories for disadvantage could capture.” Many Wily Scholars stories are in that place too. Mackenzie and Wily Scholars belong to a unique group of students on campus. They overlap with first-generation low-income students, but have more complicated and less supportive ties with family than many of their first-gen low-income peers. Their relationships with their families and their relationships with labels may feel ambiguous, and may change over time.
Scholars may have no contact with their families, or may return to unstable or unsafe homes over school breaks to care for younger siblings. Scholars may not desire any change in their relationships with their families, or may be hopeful that those relationships will move in a more positive direction. Students do not have to fit into any one specific narrative to be a Wily Scholar. What makes a Wily Scholar is a student who, like Mackenzie, is working toward their degree without emotional and financial support from family.