How to Succeed as a First-Generation College Student

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Aaliyah Barnes30
Proof that literature degrees aren't impractical
July 17, 2024 at 1:13PM UTC

Attending college can truly be one of the most unique experiences a person can have, and with it comes a lot of firsts. For many, it can be the first time they’ve lived away from home, the first time they’ve truly been responsible for themselves and even the first time they’ve had so much free time that they had no idea what to do with themselves.

 College can be a fun experience — but for many, it also comes with the added burden of navigating a new cultural landscape that is not always skewed in their favor. For many first-generation college students, the responsibility of navigating these institutions is usually placed onto them without much preparation. This can be a difficult responsibility to take on without the proper experiential information that some of their peers have had the privilege of acquiring before arriving. 

Institutions of higher education are places where a particular kind of cultural capital is needed to feel comfortable in those spaces. Since the social, socioeconomic, and cultural aspects of college are themes that are experiential in nature and when first-gen students can't turn to their parents to give them helpful advice on how to navigate the college experience, it can be quite a culture shock when these students finally arrive. Despite this, however, it is absolutely possible for first-gen students to learn to navigate higher education as they go and do well in the process. 

What is a first-generation college student? 

The term first-generation college student generally refers to students who come from families where neither of their parents attended a four-year institution of higher education, largely as a result of social inequity or financial barriers. The criteria of who can be considered a first-gen student, however, is actually much more complicated than that. There are many factors that can determine a student's status as a first-generation. One example is if one or both parents attended some college, but never finished their degree. It is also important to note that some colleges and universities have their own varying definitions for who they consider as first-generation; so there are many instances that may affect one's status as a first-gen student. Ultimately there is more than one way to define first-generation college students. 

First-generation college students are identified as such regardless of the type of institution that they choose to attend, be it a for year college or university or a two-year community college. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 33% of students enrolled in college are the first in their family to do so. These students often set precedent for other members of their family to pursue higher education and with this comes great responsibility as well as great pressure to do well despite the limited experiential knowledge that they have about the college experience as a whole. 

First-generation college students can have many intersections of their identities and thus may represent multiple minority demographics at their respective college campuses. This can be further isolating for them within spaces that are often majority wealthy, white and legacy. Nevertheless, the demographics of first-generation students at colleges and universities across the country are growing as recent generations are recognizing the correlation between college degrees and household income. This means that many first-generation students are actively trying to close gaps in generational wealth and working towards providing themselves with a chance at social mobility. 

Challenges first-generation college students face: 

  • Culture shock.

For many first-gen students,  it can be difficult to know how to assimilate to the new school culture that they're entering into because they lack the valuable resource of insider information from someone who has navigated that experience already. Suddenly, the homesickness is setting in, 10-page essays every week are the new normal, and you have five different exams, three books to read, a tuition bill to pay and not enough meal plan swipes to make it to the end of the year. All of these can be pretty overwhelming, especially when you don't have family to warn you. 
  • Lack of resources on campus for first-gen students.

While there are many schools these days that are actively trying to create programs dedicated specifically to supporting first-generation students on their campuses, there are still institutions that may not have a program like this implemented yet. When schools don't provide programs that allow for first-gen students to feel supported through the institution by connecting them with mentors, professors and most importantly, each other, this can ultimately make settling into college life that much more difficult for first-gen students who are probably already feeling anxious and isolated. 
  • Financial-aid.

For first-gen students, financially funding their college education can be a struggle for a number of reasons. Perhaps their parents hadn't planned on funding their education or they were banking on receiving a hefty scholarship to attend school, but it fell through. In some cases, since many first-generation students can't turn to their parents for help in the college application process, this also puts them at a disadvantage when applying for financial aid and scholarship resources through the FAFSA or CSS applications. First-gen students are also vulnerable to loan agencies looking to exploit them and send them into student debt. Not to mention, interacting with financial aid offices at most colleges can be an ordeal if you haven't yet learned how to advocate for yourself or keep track of your finances.
When first-gen students arrive on their college campuses and the initial culture shock sets in, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they're not qualified enough to be in that space. Sometimes there are going to be moments where you don't understand the reading for class, or a classmate used a word that you're not familiar with and that can feel incredibly isolating. Don't believe the hype, you've earned your place in that classroom and it's okay to not know something, just make sure you're open to learning what you don't know. 
  • Guilt.

When first-gen students leave home and enter a space that will inevitably place them in a position of privilege over those in their family who have not been afforded the opportunity to attend college, it can trigger feelings of guilt. This guilt often manifests as a result of acknowledging sacrifices that family members have made in order to provide them the opportunity to be where they are. If a first-gen student isn't adjusting to college life well, that guilt can also be a result of the pressure they feel to not mess up their opportunity.  Assimilating to college culture can also sometimes bring on feelings of guilt for being a "sell-out" or feeling as though they've abandoned certain parts of their identity to make navigating college easier. The truth is, you're not a sell-out, you're just evolving. 
  • School/life balance.

Yes, you should absolutely prioritize your studies as a college student — but just because your studies are important, doesn't mean that you should neglect the other important aspects of your life! First-gen students often feel an immense pressure to do well and succeed in college at all costs; but another essential part of the college experience is the extracurriculars and free time you'll have that'll broaden your horizons, help you create connections, and help you learn about yourself and your interests. Take a walk around campus when you need a break from studying or visit your friends (and please remember to eat and stay hydrated, especially during finals week)! 

How to succeed as a first-generation college student. 

1. Build a community.

 Chances are you're not alone in your experience as a first-gen student, so it would likely benefit you to seek out people with similar experiences and create a support system. Navigating the ins and outs of college together might take some of the pressure off. 

2. Reach out to potential mentors.

Finding a mentor is probably one of the most helpful things you can do for yourself when you start out navigating the college landscape. Whether it's a professor whose class you've found yourself really enjoying or an upperclassman who was in a similar position as you a few years ago, have faith in the kindness and understanding of others and reach out to them for help and guidance when you need it.

3. Make time to join activities where you can meet people.

It can be hard to perfect a school/life balance when you're new to the game. Part of the college experience is figuring out what your interests are (beyond your major, of course). Join that dance troupe or that art club. Try joining that language exchange group. Best case scenario, you find an activity that can help relieve some stress and make friends while doing it.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

Asking for help is a trait of highly mature individuals. When you find yourself struggling in class for example, don't be afraid to raise your hand and ask for clarification, it may win you some brownie points with your professors and you'll definitely be better off for it. Not to mention, the feeling of being the classmate who asked the question that everyone else was too afraid to ask is unmatched. 

5. Learn to manage and keep track of your finances.

We've all seen the broke college student jokes circulating on the internet; it's true, many college students have money struggles.  College is a time where learning to manage your money is one of the most important skills you can learn. No, you won't be able to eat out  with your friends all the time, but if you learn to budget, secure a campus work study job, and manage to stay on top of your tuition bills, you might have a few extra pennies leftover to go on an off campus adventure from time to time. 

6. Make inventory of what kind of support you need to succeed.

 What kind of support do you need to feel comfortable in your new learning environment? Most colleges and universities provide students with advisors who are a good resource to bounce ideas off of and get support from throughout your college experience. If you can make inventory of some of the situations you need support in and present them to your advisor (or other trusted campus mentor of your choosing) surely you can work together to find you that tutor, study group, grant or whatever else you may need to help make your college experience a little less stressful.

7. Choose a major that you enjoy. 

It's wise to not let others influence your choice of what it is you want to study. There is no greater burden in college than being forced to study something that you're not actually interested in. If you don't want to be on the pre-med track, don't let anyone convince you that that's what you should do. If you're unsure of what you want to major in when you get to college, that's fine too — you have at least a year and a half to make a decision! That's the joy of college, it's an exploratory stage, embrace it and make the choices that are right for you, it's your experience after-all. 

8. Remember that you deserve to be there.

You were accepted to college based on your hard work and merit – don't let anyone convince you otherwise. You deserve to be where you are because you earned it and you are capable, write these affirmations down on some sticky notes and put them where you can always see them so that you never forget.

9. Don’t lose sight of why you’re in college.

As annoying as college can be to navigate, the two to four years it takes to earn that degree will fly by more quickly than you might realize. Ultimately, you're there to achieve a goal and that should always be the motivating factor in the back of your mind. Use this time to make mistakes, learn a lot,  grow as a person, and get that degree — remember, you can do this! 

Resources for first-gen students: 

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