PUBLISHED:January 10, 2024

First-generation students find community, shared identity in student organizations 1GP, First Class


From networking challenges to impostor syndrome, student groups are fostering community, mentorship, and resilience for these trailblazing individuals

1GP students at a networking event with Latham & Watkins. 1GP students at a networking event with Latham & Watkins.

First-generation is an identity shared by dozens of Duke Law students. They are the first in their families to pursue college education, the first to attend professional schools, or the first to become lawyers.

Spanning diverse backgrounds, they are pioneers in their families who find themselves facing the rigors of law school having had limited exposure to the legal profession prior to enrolling.

“When we think about first-generation students, we have to think about not only how diverse that definition is for each student, but also how diverse their backgrounds and needs are. At Duke Law, we are striving to meet them wherever they are,” says Alison Ashe-Card, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

There are unique pressures of law school for students who self-identify as either first-generation professionals, students who may have family members who have undergraduate or graduate degrees but have not attended law school, or first-generation college students, the first in their families to navigate higher education. These range from difficulties with networking to timidness in approaching professors, impostor syndrome, or socioeconomic barriers.

Students speak at a panel event on 1L summer experiences, hosted by 1GP
Students speak at a panel on 1L summer experiences, hosted by 1GP.

This is where student groups First Generation Professionals (1GP) and the recently founded First Class have come together to build a community and advocate for resources and representation for these students, Ashe-Card says.

“There’s a wide range of needs when you look at this population. For individuals who don’t come from households where their parents know how to navigate or are part of these spaces, these student groups at Duke Law play vitally important roles. They are providing academic and social support to help those students build and develop a network that will help them in law school and beyond,” she says.

Students in 1GP find community in being the first in their families to attend a professional school or to become lawyers. Former president Madison Dunbar ’24 says the information the group provided her during her 1L year was invaluable when it came to navigating outlining, exams, and the on-campus interviewing process.

“It’s a safe space to ask questions your peers may already know just from talking to their parents or other professionals they already knew, and that was huge for me. Things like, ‘How do I study for a law school exam?’ or ‘This is happening in my criminal law class, what do you think of that?’” says Dunbar, now a 3L representative for the group.

1GP President Brandon Bishop '25
1GP President Brandon Bishop '25.

Mentorship is a large part of the 1GP community. Brandon Bishop ’25 says that he could not have gotten through his 1L year without the guidance of the mentor the group assigned him. The support he received inspired him to become the group’s president, and he is currently working towards building 1GP’s opportunities for networking, an area that can be a hurdle for many first-generation law students. While social support is a large component of 1GP, connecting its members with potential employers, who are oftentimes alumni who were also 1GP, is a critical component of the group’s programming.“As much as events like these can feel like they’re trying to help you get a foot in the door, the more important part is having people see themselves in the field and seeing successful professionals with the same background as them,” says Bishop.

It’s a sentiment shared by Wei Zheng JD/LLM ’26 T ’23, who completed her undergraduate degree at Duke University in political science before coming to Duke Law. It was a natural progression in her field of study, she said, but as a first generation professional and an international student, she didn’t feel prepared for networking.

“Before I came to law school, I was told to only worry about my grades, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Law is really a profession where you have to make connections. I grew up in a small province in Southwest China. My father works in the electrical industry and my mother did not go to college, so no one in my family knows anything about how to network here,” she says.

The communal nature of the University that Zheng experienced as an undergrad played a role in her choice to remain at Duke for law school. Her experience with student organizations like 1GP, APALSA, and the Duke Law Lifting Club has confirmed that choice, she says.

“Being a first-generation professional brings a sense of pride and also responsibility as one of the most important parts of my identity. It means a lot to be able to identify with your peers and support one another. I know as a 2L and 3L I will pass that support on to others who come to Duke Law,” said Zheng.

For students who identify as first-generation college or come from low-income backgrounds, a new student organization, First Class, was established in spring of 2023. The group, founded by students Grace Shearman ’25 and Melissa Perez ’25, started as a subsidiary of 1GP before branching off.

“We hear all the time about impostor syndrome, and I think that’s especially prevalent among first-generation people who come from backgrounds that lack a lot of resources. The thought is often, ‘I don’t belong,” and when things don’t go well it’s, ‘There’s the proof,’” says Shearman. “Our members often feel behind in extracurriculars, moot court, and journals. Maybe we don’t feel qualified for these roles, or don’t understand their importance. Our members might feel more intimidated to approach professors. And a lot of us have familial responsibilities emotionally and financially.”

Shearman grew up in a small town in East Texas. Her father did not go past the second grade, and her mother completed a high school equivalency in Mexico before the pair immigrated to the United States. Shearman has paved the way for her family as the first to pursue any kind of higher education. Navigating the system was an intimidating process, and attending the University of Texas at Austin as an undergrad was an experience that pulled her towards the smaller Durham community to study law at Duke while she and her husband raise her 4-year-old son.

Students with stories like hers, she says, understand some of the more complex aspects of being a first-generation college student, which often go beyond academic hardship.

First Class students on a trip to the pumpkin patch.
First Class members on a trip to the pumpkin patch.

First Class 1L representative Roderick Mullen ’26 says conversations about socioeconomic backgrounds and financial hardship played a large role in the passion he feels for the group’s mission.

“Moving to Durham was a huge financial challenge for me, and I didn’t really have anyone to speak to about that until I joined First Class and I was able to voice my concerns and my worries about making money throughout the semester. Just seeing people’s nods that they understood what I was talking about made me feel really validated and like I had a home on the campus,” says Mullen.

Mullen, who attended Harvard College, says it was there that he first became aware of how a student’s financial status played a role in higher education and professional studies. It was important to him to find peers who understood what it’s like to navigate a professional space and also the financial implications that those with similar backgrounds face.

Now as an ambassador for the group, Mullen plays a role in advocating for fellow members. This includes increasing awareness about group events and school resources, such as a book bank for first generation students to borrow and return textbooks at no cost.

“People are willing to help you out here at Duke and it’s not something that I’ve heard to be common at other law schools. 1L is tough and law school is challenging but I don’t think I would have wanted to do it anywhere else,” says Mullen, who is also the 1L rep for OUTLaw and the Business Law Society.

While being a first-generation college student can be a great source of pride for one’s family, it can also come with an unexpected dissonance, says First Class co-founder Perez.

“The more you pursue higher education, the bigger the gap between you and your family’s experiences becomes,” she explains.

Perez, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, is both a first-generation U.S. citizen and first-generation college student. Finding a community that she identified with took time, she said, but it was with the encouragement of the Duke Law administration that helped make it happen.

“Something that we’re so used to doing as first-generation students is figuring things out on our own, and not just about networking, but very basic help,” says Perez. “Duke Law offers a lot of resources. No question is too far off. Allow yourself to be supported because there’s support to be had here.”

Assistant Director of Admissions Josue Jimenez played a role in the foundation of First Class and says his own experience as a first-generation college student has pushed him to fill the gaps for current students who are struggling with similar issues. He says Duke Law offers a unique approach to supporting its first-generation students that he wishes he had when he was a law student.

“First-generation students land on a broad spectrum, though there are specific issues that are faced by those students who are first-generation college and or low-income. First Class not only provides a designated space for students who are struggling with issues of financial insecurity or managing dependents, but solutions like clothing and food drives and our book bank,” says Jimenez.

While law school can be an intense experience, the added barriers felt by first-generation students do not have to make or break the decision to pursue a career in this space, says Bishop. Instead, he says, those barriers can serve as a source of inspiration and drive.

“Transitioning here was jarring at first, and I think that is a common experience among first-generation students, but figuring out the uncharted territory for myself and for the people in my family has given me a sense of empowerment. It’s reassuring that, because I’m on a completely new path, I can chart my own way from here,” says Bishop.