Pride, not prejudice

8 Jan 2024

People who are their first in their family to venture into higher education with no support from their parents often face many challenges that, for other students, are simply not an issue. But rather than talk about these things, many feel stigmatized.

Leana Barac, Prof. Dr. Verena Höfig


Despite her excellent grades, Leana Barac felt out of place when she first started studying law at LMU. There were no other academics in her family. In the 1990s, her parents left their hometown of Livno in what is now Bosnia to find a new home in Germany’s Ruhr region. During the introductory lecture, however, she was the only one not to come from an academic background. When she asked the girl next to her what “BGB” stood for – the common abbreviation for Germany’s Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or Civil Code – she could feel the disbelieving stares. “I had to work hard for things that others take for granted,” the now-25-year-old recalls.

While her fellow students could turn to lawyer or Germanist parents for help with term papers, Leana had been left to her own devices since her schooldays.The native of Essen did not give up, however – which itself cannot be taken for granted. According to one report on higher education, youngsters from non-academic families not only commence studies fare more rarely, but also break off those studies much more frequently.

“There were financial worries. But I also doubted my ability to complete the course,” she says, thinking back. Fortunately, her grandmother encouraged her at the time and backed her desire to pursue higher education. In response, her father and mother also agreed to let Leana move to Munich and find her own way. Yet not all young people have such tolerant parents – and above all such obstinate grandmothers.

Encouragement from a social worker

Few people are aware that not only students but also lecturers number among the ranks of first-generation academics. Professor Verena Höfig of LMU’s Institute of Nordic Philology is a good example: No one in her family had even qualified for entry to higher education. Looking back, the historian and expert in Scandinavian studies has a social worker who looked after families with addiction issues to thank for her career trajectory. “Back then, she planted the idea in my mind that a scholarship would enable me to travel to the USA to study,” Höfig recalls. Although she had virtually no support from her family, and although the situation at home was so difficult that she moved out at the age of 16, she worked hard at school, enjoyed learning and achieved good grades. So it was that, after completing her entrance exams and graduating from university, she did indeed acquire a scholarship for doctoral research in the USA.

Not until she arrived in America did she realize that being the first person in the family to study was something to be proud of. “Until then, it had always been a stigma for me, something I wanted to conceal.” Unlike in Germany, children from non-academic families are seen in the USA as more resilient, more disciplined and more diverse than students from wealthy, well-educated home backgrounds. “It is extremely important for people like us to get greater visibility in Germany, too.” Like Leana, Höfig often used to feel she did not really belong at university. Precisely for this reason, she adds, we need more understanding of what it means to deal with struggles in the face of a migration background, sickness or disability.

Books on loan – A way to break the ice

Today, Höfig always has a set of course books ready to loan out to those who cannot afford to buy them. “Not every child from a working-class family will need them, of course. But it is a symbolic invitation to begin the conversation.” One student in one of her seminars did not have a laptop, so the professor offered to try and find a solution. “But he found that really embarrassing,” she says, noting that people are much more laid back about such topics in the USA. Höfig is therefore convinced of the importance of having suitable mentoring programs and networking events, and of giving greater visibility to scholarship programs – such as the Germany Scholarship – where more emphasis is placed on social aspects. During the pandemic, for example, LMU was the only Bavarian university to support needy students out of its own endowments. Without this help, Leana, for example, would never have been able to afford to study.

Höfig also recommends, where more than 6,000 volunteers provide information about successfully accessing higher education, what courses are on offer and how to study without parental funding support. During her stay in the USA, she herself helped out on all matters relating to study periods abroad. Leana does the same. She knows from her own experience how often non-academics are misunderstood, how often they feel left alone. “It really means a lot to me to be able to support precisely these young people and help them advance their education.” She herself has now reached her initial goal, having successfully completed her studies in the summer. Once she has a second state examination under her belt, she wants to become a judge.

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