The challenges of being a first-generation college student

When I applied for college, a question on the application asked if I was a first generation college student. I checked the box, not fully knowing the question’s significance. Later I found out only 15% of the students in my class year were first-generation college students. I guess that makes me kind of special.

Although freshman year is challenging for most students, many of the struggles first generation students face are unique. Besides academic and social transitions most of the students face, first generation college students face additional cultural challenges (Pascarella et al. 2004). These students can experience a cultural conflict between home and the university environment because their parents did not attend colleges. First generation students do not always understand what some students may have learned from their parents, and thus, grasp intuitively (Tugend, 2015). For example, first gen students may lack understandings of how to navigate various facets of campus culture, such as how to make friends and accessing social and academic resources.

Collegiate academics are considerably harder to grasp than the high school curriculum. Assigned reading are more difficult to comprehend, essays are more demanding, and projects are more complicated. In addition, it is more difficult to balance the time between study and social activities. Last semester, I spent hours doing my philosophy readings, not understanding most of their contents. Sometimes I would not have dinner with my friends because I had to do more work.

The stress from academics and social isolation can cause mental issues. Joseph Morales (2013), an alumnus from Pomona College, when reflecting his college experience, said, “Depression was a constant issue. I felt dumb, poor, homesick, confused, and burnt out.”

Students compare themselves with others based not only on academic performance, but also on socioeconomic status. Not all first-generation students are from low-income families, but a large proportion of them are from a lower socioeconomic background (Tugend, 2015). Being a first-gen college student and from a lower socioeconomic class has a coupling effect on students’ self-confidence and self-esteem. They often hide their identities because if their peers know they are both first-gen and poor, their peers may underestimate their academic ability, achievement, and performance (Banks-Santilli, 2015).

Unfortunately, even though first-generation college students face many new challenges, often their parents cannot relate to their experiences. When I talked to my mom about the classes I was taking and clubs I was a member of last semester, our conversation always seemed to remain at the surface level. Later, I learned to tell her about my life in a more routine way, stating everything I did every day without explaining in details because she would seemed indifferent anyway. Even though we are still close, there are so many things about me that my parents do not know, and I wish I could share more details with them.

First-generation college students are different from other students, but discussions of these differences rarely occur. There is a lot that colleges can do to improve the situation. For example, Harvard University has established a program on directing college awareness to future first generation college students (Harvard First Generation Program). The program aims at raising awareness to future first-gen college students and building networks between alumni and these students. Hosting lectures on challenges first-gen students face and designing programs for first-generation college students will help them better understand their identities and have more a successful transition to college. Colleges can also hold meetings or set up discussions for first-gen college students to help them feel less alone. Schools can work harder to admit more first-gen college so that they have greater representation as well. Increased support for first generation students is crucial to help them achieve self-worth and success, not only in college but also beyond it.

8 thoughts on “The challenges of being a first-generation college student”

  1. This is a really interesting blog topic! I never thought about how much different college could be for someone with parents who did not experience it. It seems as though, however, you found your way! I just learned about this in my psych class and our book said the best ways to cope with first-generation blues is to really get yourself involved in activities on campus so you find your own social support groups. I hope you are doing better! Great job on your post!

    1. Thank you so much Aly! It was hard for me at the beginning because I did not know how I could get help, but now it’s getting much better, and I really enjoy college in general. However, I do know that there are a lot of first-generation college students who end up dropping out. I guess there are a lot of factors that contribute to the college experience, and there are definitely a lot more to first-gen college students experiences to learn about and to do research on.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your blogpost. It is eyeopening to learn more about people’s backgrounds. We come into a classroom and do not realize what it took for people to get there. I hope that when researching about this topic, it gives you a sense of comfort knowing that there are common trends as a first generational student. I am curious if, while being a minority within Hamilton and college as a whole, you found yourself connecting with other first generational students? I am sure there are many elements of tokenism, but do you have friends that you can confide in that understand your situation? I think in this day in age, we should be increasing numbers of first generational kids in colleges. I hope that educational institutions can form more programs like Harvard that help eliminate the added stresses of being first generational, and connect them to other first generational students but also to the larger student body.

    1. Thank you so much Ellison! To answer your question, I am a first generation college student and also an international student. So it’s tricky to say if I connect with first-gen students or international students more. The difference though is that people don’t pay attention to your identity as a first-gen student as much as an international student. I guess it’s hard for them to think about the experience in general. There is a program called Peer Mentor at Hamilton that pairs up people who are from minority backgrounds to upperclassmen. I benefit from it because my mentor took me to activities that I didn’t previously know about. And thank you for your comment at the end. I really hope first-gen college students can have greater representation.

  3. Thank you so much for writing about this! I definitely think it’s something that’s very important but not studied or talked about as much as other sociological phenomena. It also makes me wonder how being an international student and a minority intersect with being a first-gen student. Personally, I am a minority but not an international student. My mom attended one year of college in Korea before her family was unable to afford it any longer while my dad graduated as an electric engineer in Korea before coming to America, where his degree meant nothing. So although I’m technically a first-generation student, I know my experiences are definitely different than someone whose parents didn’t attend college. I don’t know if you have the answers to these questions, but they’re evidence that your blogpost was very thought provoking. I agree with your conclusions that schools can be doing a lot more to help first-gen students have the best experience possible! <3

    1. Thank you so much Jane!! When I was growing up in China, no one really talked about what it meant to be a first-generation college student. That’s why I did not pay attention to the fact that my parents did not attend college. The difference in middle school and high school was not very obvious, though, between me and students whose parents attended college. It did not affect me until I came here at Hamilton, where many students are more privileged and their parents raised them up in a way that was like “concerted cultivation”. That’s when I realized I am different. There are things here that I don’t grasp intuitively and don’t know who I can get help from. Again, thank you for putting thoughts into it. I really appreciate it! Cheers! 🙂

  4. Hi Justin,

    I really enjoyed reading this post because I am also a first generation student. Many of the things you stated here are spot-on. Coming to Hamilton College has honestly been one of, if not the biggest, transition in my life. Besides the big geographical change from NYC to Clinton, NY, I honestly had trouble navigating the campus culture. I constantly asked myself “How many clubs should I join?, “If I go to office hours more than once a week, does than mean I’m not a good student?”. There were so many things I had to figure out on my own, or at least I felt that way.

    Like you, I often find myself having surface level conversations with my mom about college. It may be hard for her to understand what’s on the syllabus or why I need to go to the registrar or how Student Assembly operates. I hope that we can both find ways to help our parents understand the campus culture better so that they can understand our college experience on a deeper level.

    Also, it seems as if there is a stigma attached to being a first-gen student. It is hard to tell who is a first-gen student and who isn’t yet sometimes I’ve heard people generalize that first-gen students are typically minority students. While it may seem that way (and I once bought into that idea), I have found that first-gen students vary in so many ways. Our President, Joan Hinde Stewart, was a first-gen college student and openly shares that.

    On your last point, I do agree that colleges need to do more to support first-gen students. These students often possess the skills necessary to do well but cannot do so because of their unfamiliarity with how college works. Our school does a good job with its Peer Mentoring Program, helping first-gen and international students get acclimated to the campus by providing them with upperclassmen mentors. However, I hope to see more initiatives to help first-gen students succeed on college campuses.

    Thank you for your post, Justin!

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