‘Cycle’ tells story of first-gen students

Kelsey Van Ert plays Pawn, a fictional low-income, first generation student in ‘Break the Cycle.’ Photo courtesy of Susie Paul.
Kelsey Van Ert plays Pawn, a fictional low-income, first generation student in ‘Break the Cycle.’ Photo courtesy of Susie Paul.

College is a struggle on every level regardless of your background. For some, though, college can feel a little more like being lost at sea. I know that looking back on my first semester, staying afloat mentally and physically was taxing. Even the process of applying to college was stressful. There were so many aspects I was unaware of, like the CSS forms and the IDOC forms and the College forms and the XYZ forms…

It was difficult to get through all the financial aid forms because I had to do them by myself, and I knew nothing about taxes – I only knew about these forms because a friend mentioned them to me, which spoke to the fact that my mother could not help me. Being the first person in my family to go away to college meant I was on my own. Buying books, picking classes, getting a job, paying my bills, all while trying to be a student and a part of the College’s community, began to feel like a burden and a blessing my first semester. Kelsey Van Ert did an amazing job of including these aspects into her performance of Break the Cycle, which focused primarily on the struggles of being a low-income, first-generation college student, like me.

The show was full of color, music and motion, while maintaining a high level of truth. Van Ert, being a low-income first-generation student herself, captured what those identifiers mean through her own experience. She grounded the show by basing the framework off of a game called “Break the Cycle,” while weaving in the narratives of her friends. In the game, Van Ert played a character named Pawn who had to apply to school and earn a diploma. Pawn’s first task was to get an 1800 or more on her SATs, apply for FAFSA and get into a school. When she first attempted to beat the level, Pawn earned a 1300 and did not get into any of her schools because she was unaware that she had to study and could not afford the SAT study material. After learning from her failure, she tried again, receiving an 1800 and admission into her top choice school – thus, completing the level. To beat the second level, Pawn had to pass her classes. She found herself struggling to keep up with classes while maintaining her job. During her fight to stay in school, she meets a boy at a party and gets pregnant, causing her to fail the level. After having her baby, however, Pawn returns to school and works hard in and out of class in order to earn her diploma. 

While Van Ert uses Pawn, a fictional character, to portray the life of a low-income first-generation student, she plays the roles of her friends and uses audio clips of her friends’ voices to add more perspectives to the show. Each voice, though nameless, had a story. One of the stories that truly stuck out was that of a young man who talked about going through college on his own with little support from his family. He worked every day in order to pay for his tuition, barely passed his classes and only ate what his roommates shared because he could not afford meals. He graduated without a single family member in the audience. In his family, he was the first to go to school, meaning he broke the cycle.

After playing a video game character and playing her different friends, Van Ert performed a spoken word poem mixed with singing that ended with her doing a head spin. She also pushed the idea that parents influence their children with bad habits that create a cycle, though not necessarily a circular one – more like a spiral. “Spirals do not always end where they start, but land a little bit further away from where they began,” Van Ert said.

Being a first generation student means that one has the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty in their family. Being a student is a privilege.

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