My parents do not have a history of higher education, I am the first. One dropped out and the other did not have financial resources to attend.
So what is a first-generation college student?
First- generation college student is when neither of your parents have a college degree or post-secondary education.
(definition varies depending on college)
You might be wondering what does a first-generation student go through… well, I’m going to share a bit of my past to you.
The first time I heard the word college was not until grade 10. “Catherine you need to do your common app, your SAT, your IB your blah blah blah in order to get into your dream college” my college counselor said to me. I left the room in tears because I was overwhelmed and didn’t understand what she was talking about. From that point I promised myself that I would do everything to get ahead and make sure I was on track. So that’s what I did. I would see my friends hire private tutors, go to workshops and I did everything they did to make myself competitive. But the one thing that I lacked was guidance from my parents. When my friend struggled with her common app, her college-educated parents helped her out. When I struggled, my parents didn’t know how to help. They didn’t even know what the common app was.
My parents never took me to a college tour so I was unsure how to determine if I was a good fit for the college. I was growing envious of my friends who had parents that went to college. They seemed to have to easier than me.
College-educated parents could draw on their experiences and help out their children. And if things went awry they could provide a cushion.
I did not have that cushion. I had to learn everything on my own. Now looking back I think I understand why. Both of my parents did not attend college, therefore they could not provide me the knowledge or resources they wish they knew. I know I’m not alone, I have friends who are also the first to go to college and went through the same thing that I did. Normally, first-generation students experience difficulty with areas such as professional, financial, psychological and academic. If you are first-generation this is not your fault and don’t feel guilty, if you don’t know where to start.
People seem to underestimate what first-generation college students have to do in order to make college a reality for them. Most people who decide not to go to college do so because they cannot afford it. Food, living expenses, tuition fees, housing fees, is a big amount of money. I completely understand and empathize with those who choose not to go. But there are solutions to support yourself if money is an issue. Research on scholarships, financial aid and if that is not enough consider a loan from the bank. There are many banks that give you a low interest fee and you could work out a way to pay them when you get a job. I know getting a loan from the bank is not the first thing on your mind so consider other options. This should be your last resort.
I used to be so embarrassed about being a first-generation student but I think all students should embrace it. The truth is first-generation status may give you an edge in the application process 😉 So, if you just found out that you are first-generation, congratulations! You’re the first, so be proud.
Some advice for those who are first-generation applying to college:
- Determine if you are first generation: All colleges have their own definition of what it means to be first-generation. Make sure you contact the college admissions officers to make sure you qualify as a first-generation candidate.
- Share your experience: In the common app there are some questions regarding if your parents ever attended college or high school. Once you’ve answered that part make sure you explain a bit more in your essay about being a first-generation and what it means for you to receive a college education. If you plan on using your essay on a different topic no worries! There is also the additional comment section and you can mention that you are first-generation. That’s what I did because I had other topics for my essays I wanted to share with the college 😛
- Identify yourself when visiting colleges: When a college visits your school or you visit the college, make sure you take the opportunity to ask the counselors about their first-generation program and how the college helps first generation students. For instance, LMU Los Angeles (the college that I will be attending this fall) has an excellent program called “First to go” and the program helps first-generation students transition to college. The program will allow me to meet other students who are also first-generation. I think this is a great way for me to meet others who are first-gen and I could learn from them and be inspired. So make sure you ask what program the college has as it could help you find a place, a community where you feel like you belong to.
- Seek resources: Google is awesome! Watch/read other inspiring stories of first-generation students. I feel so empowered and motivated every time I watch other first-generation students share their story on I’m First website. This website is an online community for first-generation college students and there are some great resources for your college journey.
Keep in mind, everyone’s college path is different. Just because yours is not the same as your friend who is a straight A, 4.0 got into Harvard, Trinity, Princeton & etc.. it does not mean you’re less of a person. Don’t ever compare your journey to anyone else. There will always be someone who has the college path you wish you had. Don’t do this to yourself, instead look back and see how you much you have overcome.
I’m a firm believer that you can get whatever you want in your life if you work hard.
Trust me you will get to where you want in your life by getting up, by being consistent and it will happen if you put in the work.
Some first-generation students quit before completing their degree, partially because they don’t have the guidance to deal with stress or expectations. I know this. Because I dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College after one semester because I could not deal with the stress or expectations. I really think colleges need to recognize that first-generation students do not easily come forward to seek help. I mean look at me! It took me 5 years to realize that I needed help 🙁 To prevent this from happening to you, here is what I would advise on how to deal with stress and expectations as a first-generation student going to college:
- Budget: Leave home with a budget in mind. You will be dealing with money every single day in any form; whether its thinking about it, spending it, saving it, investing it, money will be on your mind. This is key to survival. Ask your parents how much they are willing to support you. If that is not enough, consider part time jobs, loans, financial aid & scholarships. This way you know how much income you have each month and how much you can spend and save. I will be writing a post soon on budgeting in college in America so stay tuned 🙂
- Expectations vs. reality, make sure you visit the campus: If I could go back in time, I would have done college tours. I would have done plenty of them no matter how tedious they are, and I would have started in grade 7 or 8. Research is just one part but visiting the campus and seeing the location, the people, the professors is how you’re most likely to know if you are an ideal fit. There is no better way. If you can’t afford the travel expenses, watch youtube videos, look on college confidential, ask friends if they know anyone who went to the school or call the college counselors to guide you.
- Stressful situations do arise. stay calm and seek help: There are many times in college where I have had to deal with stressful situations. Sometimes I would leave the class, take the phone call, cry and go back to class. I would deal with it after class by talking to the college counselor or talking to a friend. No matter what your situation is, seek help and talk it out to people you trust.
- Being homesick is normal but don’t let it affect you: Every night before I go to bed I feel nostalgic. I think of those fun memories of me when I was younger eating bún bò Huế with my grandma and watching Tom & Jerry. I get home sick from time to time, but I strive to work hard so I can build a future for myself. I don’t see my family as much anymore it sucks, but no one said life was easy so I get up, do what I have to do and go to bed knowing that I’ve done my best. However, if you feel that you are more sad than often, I recommend going to see a college counselor or even try therapy. Don’t be afraid when seeking help. Take baby steps and know that this is for your own emotional well-being. There is no way you can focus on school if you are not taking care of yourself. Make yourself a priority.
My parents are happy to send me to LMU this fall because it represents hope, progress, and pride for my family & serves as a guide for my younger sister to look up to. Being a first-generation student has allowed me to grow and I am looking forward to building a future for myself and living a life on my own terms with my college education.
It’s upsetting to me that the cost of education is incredibly expensive 🙁 I almost feel like you have to be super rich to get a degree and that is just so unfair. Education is for all and should not be a limitation for people. I want to let you know that no matter where you come from, or how much money your family has that you can succeed if you work hard. Get your education, get your degree and and build the incredible life for yourself that you know that you deserve.
There are times where I have my doubts. I can’t call home and ask my parents how college was for them. But its okay, I’ve learnt how to deal with it on my own and most importantly I’ve learnt how to survive in America without their guidance and I think I’m doing just fine.
Have the confidence to believe in yourself, the courage to work hard and ask for help when you need it
– Michelle Obama
If you didn’t know already, she was a first-generation student too!
I love you all. And reading your comments make me smile so much. I just finished getting my kitchen all together and now I can finally cook. It feel so good! It’s been 3 months since I moved in I feel more at home, safe and secure.
Orientation is next week. Can’t believe I am going to university and going to finish my last two years strong.
Goodnight from Los Angeles. Sweet dreams, wake up and kick ass! You’ve got this and I am here if you ever need help, feel free to message me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bisous and a big hug to you all.