Though it’s been six years since my dad first dropped me off at college, I still remember the feeling I had when he left. At first, excitement — here I was, officially on my own!
But then, a rush of overwhelming anxiety. Here I was, in a place I did not understand, surrounded by people I did not know, officially on my own as a 17-year-old.
Many students can relate to this feeling, but the first few weeks of school can be especially intense for those who are the first in their family to attend college. First-generation students are “often ill prepared for the rigors of college life” because they are forced to struggle against “educational institutions that were not designed to serve them,” according to a New York Times news reporter. As the executive director of the University Innovation Alliance — a consortium dedicated to increasing student retention — put it, “The reality is that if the institution is not designed around students, there are a series of booby traps that are unintentionally set that would trip up any student.”
When you have another marginalized identity that intersects with being first-generation (such as being low-income, a student of color, or a first- or second-generation immigrant), navigating an education system designed to keep you out can feel impossible.
For starters, social isolation is a big factor when surrounded by peers who cannot relate to your experiences. Add to that the fact that many first-generation students from low-income schools feel intimidated by peers who have a significant head start in AP, IB, and/or concurrent enrollment credits. Some students develop a distinct university personality as a way to assimilate, but doing so can make you feel like you are losing your own identity. First-generation students also face identity crises when their collegiate experiences begin creating a gap between family and friends from home who can’t relate to such a different lifestyle.
If that’s not enough, many first-generation students also perceive faculty members as anxiety-inducing authority figures instead of friendly mentors. Unfamiliar university culture can create the feeling that everyone is working from some rulebook you never received. (An example? Going to office hours just to chat. Many students never do because they are afraid of “wasting” professors’ time.) Nepotism, unspoken expectations, and lack of transparency around university politics present further challenges.
These hurdles add up. One UCLA study of 356 four-year institutions found that only 27.4 percent of first-generation students earn a degree in four years, as compared to 42.1 percent of students who have parents with bachelor’s degrees. In addition, 42.6 percent of white students received degrees as compared to 25.8 percent of Latinx students, 21 percent of black students, and 16.8 percent of indigenous American students. Data from another 2015 study of pell grant recipients show that less than half of low-income students received a degree within six years, as compared to 67 percent of other students.
So, that’s the bad news.
The good news? Many of us will still beat the odds if we have the right tools and a little luck. Other first-generation students who have already graduated can offer indispensable firsthand advice and mentorship. For me, the following strategies contributed most meaningfully to collegiate success:
- Find your people. This is the most important thing on this list because keeping yourself from feeling isolated is absolutely tantamount to your successful integration into the university. Many of us feel safer asking fellow first-generation students questions that might seem obvious to other peers, and that solidarity can be a wonderful stress relief. First-generation students of color might find refuge in student unions such as the Black Student Union or the Asian and Pacific American Student Union. LGBTIA+ students have a variety of queer student organizations to choose from, and you can also find other first-generation students just by paying attention to the students in your classes.
- Find a mentor. Here is a more difficult task, especially if you are nervous around professors like I am. In my experience, your best bet is asking other marginalized students about which university officials they feel comfortable around. They can often point you in the direction of accessible faculty members or other university staff who are from similar backgrounds. Another method is to research and take classes in the humanities that are dedicated to topics of race, class, gender, and other markers of identity. Many of the professors teaching courses in ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and even English are likely to have had firsthand experiences with the same hurdles you are facing. These mentors are indispensable sources of knowledge (and you will be thankful to have a few relationships with professors if you ever need letters of recommendation).
- When in doubt, Google it. I know this one is a little obvious, but the power of Google is often under-acknowledged. There are tons of online message boards and guides concerning the first-generation experience, which can help you feel more prepared for the things you will face as a student. I also suggest spending some time just browsing through your department’s website and the homepage of the university; familiarizing yourself with the structure of the institution will make life easier.
- Take advantage of being first-gen! I received maybe a dozen different scholarships and grants throughout college that were based partially either on financial need or first-generation status. Moreover, if you are working class, you will find a host of jobs on campus that are designed for students and can help pay the bills. Working as an RA often means free room and board, student jobs can be easier to get if you have work-study, and summer gigs are always available on campus. With a combination of good grades, savvy budgeting, and student jobs, I managed to secure enough funding to graduate with almost no student debt. It is hard work, but it can be done.
- Call home. I cannot stress this enough. Stay connected to your family (chosen or biological) and your identity: they will be your anchors.
And with that last tip — happy first day of college! I see you, and you’re gonna do great.