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.