First-Generation College Student: Everything You Need to Know

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Congratulations on being the first in your family to attend college!  Being a first-generation college student is a significant educational milestone and one you should be extremely proud of.

Along with this excitement, you might also feel some uncertainty. After all, you’re the first in your family to take these brave steps forward.

Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone! In fact, you’re in good company. Of the over 7 million undergraduate students attending four-year public and private colleges and universities, nearly 20% of them are first-generation students. With that being said, here’s a closer look at what you can expect, as well as resources that can help you not just survive, but thrive.

What is a First-Generation College Student?

Simply put, a first-generation college student is one whose parents have not earned a four-year degree. It’s common in many families for there to be “intergenerational continuity”—you were probably raised to have similar beliefs about work, religion, family, and community roles as your parents and grandparents. Being the first in your immediate family to go to college may shift these beliefs.

But you shouldn’t feel guilty about having these opportunities that your parents may not have had. Your parents want to see you succeed. It’s even possible that you could become a role model for others in your family and in your community. That should give you even more drive and determination to succeed!

Should I Write About Being a First-Generation College Student on My College Application Essay?

Your college application essay should set you apart from the crowd. And today, there may be many first-generation college students just like you. Unless being a first-generation college student somehow ties into your unique story or helps you present yourself at an even more unique angle to make you more desirable to the colleges and universities you want to attend, you shouldn’t make that the central part of your application essay.

Does Being a First-Generation College Student Help or Hurt You in College Admissions?

The fact is, today’s colleges and universities, now more than ever, are looking for ways to add more diversity to the student body. Whether that’s culturally, socially, economically or a combination thereof, there’s no doubt that schools are concentrating on ways to bring more diversity into their classrooms.

While being a first-generation college student won’t directly give you any specific advantage over your peers, it is nevertheless something that can be noticed as part of your admissions essay when used in a way that further exemplifies your story.

Beyond the essay, there are several challenges you’ll want to be aware of as you progress through the admissions process.

What Challenges Do First-Generation College Students Face in College?

There are generally four distinctive areas where first-generation college students tend to struggle in college:

  1. Academic
  2. Professional
  3. Psychological
  4. Financial

Academically, it’s possible that you’ve only applied to one or two colleges and have done so entirely on your own. Many colleges and universities have application fees, and you’re likely uncertain of whether or not that particular school is really a good fit for you. You may not have ever taken a tour of the campus.

First-generation college students tend to shy away from the spotlight and feel like they need to stay in the background. Instead of feeling proud and seeing your foray into higher education as a strength, it’s possible that others might view this through a lens of pity — particularly if you come from a low-income family.

Professionally, first-generation college students might feel like they’re in uncertain territory. If their parents had gone to college, they may have built up professional networks that their children now benefit from. First-generation college students don’t have this network and aren’t sure how to build those kinds of relationships with their professors and colleagues.

Psychologically, you may feel as if you’re “abandoning” your family or siblings. You may be far away from home for the first time and this can cause you to worry. Psychologists have termed this  the “breakaway guilt.

Finally, there’s the financial angle. Although there are many financial channels designed to help first-generation college students, there are still countless financial aid papers to fill out. It can feel overwhelming — so many numbers involved and neither you, nor your parents, may know how to fill out all of the required information.

Despite these challenges, many first-generation college students make confident strides forward. These issues are not without their remedies, and many colleges and universities are willing to help and offer guidance and help those students who are more at risk of falling behind.

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What Should a First-Generation College Student Do to Prepare for College Life?

The most important thing that first-generation college students can do is ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness or ineptitude. Second, know that you’re not alone. Look for other highly-motivated students—they may also be first-generation college students who going through similar feelings. Having such a support network will help you stay focused on your goals.

You may often feel throughout your time in college that you don’t belong there. “Imposter Syndrome” is common among first-generation college students. But you belong there as much as anyone else. Getting involved in campus life and activities is a good way to remind yourself of that fact. Just be careful not to overdo it!

College life is all about finding a balance—a balance between helping yourself and helping your family, building a network of friendships and associations, and staying true to yourself.

How Should a First-Generation College Student Organize Him- or Herself in College?

Many first-generation college students feel as if they are walking a thin line between two very different worlds:  the world of academia and the world of their family and community. You don’t have to view this line with trepidation. You have had experiences that other college students never will, and this has made you who you are.

Staying organized with that in mind means looking to groups who share your concerns and struggles. These could be groups based on cultural or language similarities, groups based on activities you enjoy, or groups that are designed to help you feel more comfortable and acclimate yourself to college life. Every school has them, so don’t hesitate to ask around and join in.

Staying organized while enjoying the most that college has to offer means figuring out a system that works for you. It doesn’t have to be some kind of fancy high-tech organizational system. You may have even come from a household that never owned a computer.

What’s important isn’t the system itself but how you use it.

Staying organized could be as simple as buying a calendar or a basic day planner and writing down your activities and plans so that you stay on task and on schedule. Ask friends, mentors or others what systems they use and what they like or don’t like about them. It won’t be long before you’ll come to rely on one that suits you. The organizational pieces will start falling into place.

What Are Resources for a First-Generation College Student to Seek Help on Campus? Who Should They Talk To?

You may not realize it, but there are a variety of excellent resources available for first-generation college students. It’s common for first-generation students to want to stay silent and invisible, but colleges and universities understand this and want to help.

Ask your student support services department or office about the resources available to you since they differ from school to school. The services can include:

  • Financial aid counseling – applying for and securing ways to pay for college, including grants and scholarships
  • Academic advisors – people who can help you map out your class schedule and recommend specific classes to take
  • Writing centers – offices that help teach you how to take good notes, how to format reports, and much more
  • Career planning – departments that help to prepare you for the workforce during or after getting your degree

How Can Low-Income First-Generation College Students Thrive on Campus?

You may be surprised to learn that almost 50% of all first-generation college students in the U.S. come from low-income families. Thriving on campus doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money. In fact, many first-generation college students elect to go to college to help further support their families.

Many universities have specific programs available that are free or low cost and that all students can participate in. Many of them also try to match students with similar backgrounds, educational goals, and study habits so that they can further support each other.

Financially, there are many programs at both state and federal levels as well as corporate-backed grants that help make college more affordable for low-income families. High school guidance counselors and college admissions departments have a wealth of information about what types of financial aid are available.

It may even be possible to become a part of a work-study program, where you earn additional money while working and studying on campus.

How Can Children of Immigrants Thrive on Campus?

Immigrant students face unique challenges in addition to being first-generation college students. There may be a cultural or language barrier in addition to an entirely new way of life. As a way of helping to increase the diversity of the student body, many colleges and universities have programs available specifically aimed at helping children of immigrants, as well as children who are immigrants themselves.

Here again, resources are at your disposal to help you become more self-sufficient. These may include remedial courses in language or a basic course in “College 101,” which helps students become acclimated to the college way of life. Having a strong community support system, in addition to a strong academic network, can help make this transition easier for the children of immigrants.

The Bottom Line for First-Generation College Students

As you can see, there is no shortage of resources available for first-generation college students, particularly when it comes to helping you adjust to college and become more comfortable with the path that you’ve chosen for yourself. And although you’ll likely face some struggles that your second or third-generation peers will not, it’s worth reminding yourself that these are strengths that you carry with you—they are not weaknesses.

Resources are available to help you. You simply have to have the courage to ask and take that first step!

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