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Firsthand stories of first-gen students

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Going to college is one of life’s most rewarding—and also demanding—experiences. For first-generation college students whose parents did not have the same opportunities, the financial, social, academic, and family issues can be amplified. The key to students’ adjustment and enjoyment is integrating academically and socially into campus life.

“It is true that your past experiences, including social inequalities, can impact your college success. But they do not have to define your destiny; the choices you make while in college can have a far greater impact on your success,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at San Francisco State University. Here, first-generation students and faculty advisors discuss what works.

How to intergrate academically and socially

“The key to staying in college for all students, regardless of your background or identity, is making sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself with your campus both academically and socially. Campus leaders have a responsibility to help you, but you have to also be responsible for yourself,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management at San Francisco State University. Here’s what Dr. Hong recommends:

  • Go to freshmen orientation
  • Show up for class, show up for class, show up for class!
  • Take advantage of your professor’s office hours to discuss questions or ideas; get to know your faculty
  • Live on campus if you can
  • If you have to work, get a job on campus rather than off campus
  • Join a student club or start one
  • Study abroad

Community resources can help fill in the gaps, but be careful not to let them substitute for becoming involved on campus. “Is there a church where you can practice your faith? Are there opportunities to volunteer? A community-based organization can be an excellent place to connect with other people. Engage a faculty member who may have a similar background or share some of your experiences,” says Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook, vice president for student success and engagement at Wheelock College, Massachusetts.

Clifton Rawlings

Clifton Rawlings

Second-year undergraduate | Computer engineering
California State University, San Bernardino

What was your main motivation for going to college?

I wanted to become a fighter pilot, so I looked into the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. A community college wouldn’t have this option, so I started applying to universities. I had to navigate the process by myself. I made a mistake in my application for financial aid and they gave me a really hard time. I got discouraged and almost didn’t apply, but my cousin helped me. My parents supported me, but after we realized the cost, I had to cut down on the number of applications and see how we could make it work financially.

How the admissions process proves your grit

“The process of applying for college, completing the necessary paperwork, and registering for classes can be complicated at best. When first-gen students show up for classes on the first day of the term, they have already demonstrated the grit it takes to be successful in college, even though they may not realize it at first.

“The characteristic that you may think is a barrier to their success in college—being the first one in your family—can actually work to your advantage if you view your ability to overcome obstacles as a strength that will help you in the future.”

—Amy Baldwin, MA, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas; author of The First-Generation College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2011)

So how are you paying for college now?

It’s definitely hard. I had to take federal loans to pay for most of it. My dad manages to save up every couple of months to help me out. I got a job on campus so we take turns making payments. I had to choose a college close to home so I wouldn’t have to live on campus.

How to approach the financial challenge

First-generation college students are more likely to get a paid job to cover college expenses, and their choice of college is more likely to be driven by financial factors, compared to their non-first-generation peers, according to research. Living at home can save money but may delay academic and social integration on campus.

“I suggest that first-gen students ask a lot of questions and not be afraid to seek out help. College and universities sometimes assume that students understand some of the hidden costs of going to college,” says Baldwin. She recommends three key steps:

  1. Work with a counselor or advisor to determine how tuition, fees, books, and other expenses will be paid for; this is key to keeping track of costs and what you will owe if you decide to take loans.
  2. Consider applying for financial aid, including grants, loans, and scholarships; there are scholarships just for first-gen students. You may have to piece together money from different sources.
  3. Stay on track to graduate on time, which can reduce the costs of college, by earning good grades and choosing classes carefully.

How does that affect your social life?

Most of the students live in dorms and they get the whole college experience, just like their parents did. My lifestyle is different because I don’t see my peers often after school hours. It helps if you join a club or group. You build friendships over time.

How does your job change your experience of college?

I got a position with Dell as an on-campus promoter. It’s allowed me to make more personal connections with professors and faculty, and I can make it work with my schedule. I’m not so sure about joining the Air Force now. I could use my experience and degree for a different career.

How to set achievable goals

Think about your competing commitments
“Move away from big resolutions. Instead, think about competing commitments: ‘My intention is to do X, and I have many other demands or desires, such as Y and Z.’ Identify the competing commitments that are getting in the way and think about how to resolve those conflicts. Courage doesn’t mean you take on every fight, all the time, everywhere. Focus on where you can make a difference this semester and go for the smaller wins.”
—Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management, San Francisco State University, California

Allow yourself to aim high
“Don’t limit yourself with where you want to go and what you want to become because of family, financial, or other issues. Yes, it may be important to consider those factors, but they can never stop you. There are ways of overcoming these obstacles.”
—Zhakaysha Garrett, First in the Family resident assistant/advisor, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

How has your relationship with your parents changed?

It’s improved a lot. My mother wanted to go to college, but she got pregnant in high school and didn’t have the chance. Now she loves it when I tell her all about college life. Those conversations have really built up our relationship, and my dad likes to listen to me, too.

Kelsey Noel

Kelsey Noel

Fourth-year undergraduate | English
Eastern Kentucky University

When did you first know you wanted to go to college?

My parents really pushed the idea since I can remember. They worked very hard doing long hours and they wanted me to have better opportunities. However, I had to do my own research, understand the admissions process, and figure out financial aid. They couldn’t offer advice or help financially.

So how are you paying for school?

As a low-income student, I qualified for the maximum Pell Grant. I also took federal loans. I refuse to take private loans, as they don’t have your best interest in mind. I work almost fulltime in the summer plus two jobs during the school year. That forces you to be organized. I like the responsibility and I see it as part of the transition into adulthood.

How do your life experiences affect your relationship with your peers?

I went to a Catholic university in my first year and didn’t mention my background. Eventually I transferred to EKU, which is more diverse. Still, most students come from professional families. They know more about school life and can benefit from their parents’ experience. It’s hard for them to relate to my situation, so I keep my issues to myself. A painful example of this is an argument I had with a good friend who came from a very privileged background, about how low income affects food choices. Our different perceptions created a huge divide between us and we eventually lost contact.

How to handle a social disconnect: “Imposter syndrome”

“The term ‘impostor syndrome’ is used to describe the feelings that first-gen students face when they step on campus: that you don’t belong and someone will figure it out if you’re not careful!

“The truth is that many students—first-gen and those who are not first-gen—feel this way when they start. It often takes time to develop relationships and to find groups that you feel most comfortable in. This is normal,” says Baldwin. Her three tips:

  1. Your college may have a first-gen group on campus that you can join.
  2. Look for activities and groups that interest you, and join in.
  3. If you feel as though you cannot get connected in a positive way, talk with a counselor or advisor or even a professor. They may be able to point you to resources on campus that can help you adjust.

How does your family relate to your life as a college student?

My parents are very proud of me, but there are challenges. I can’t really talk to them about grades, internships, or what I’m learning. They can’t understand how much effort it takes. I’ve had articles published, but it’s not something they can read and appreciate.

Family feats and frustrations

“First-gen students often feel they live in two worlds: their family or community, and college,” says Amy Baldwin, author of The First-Generation College Experience (2011).

Family encouragement
“Family plays an important role in a first-gen student’s success,” says Baldwin. In a 2005 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 47 percent of first-generation college students cited their parents’ encouragement as a very important reason for going to college—slightly higher than that among non-first-generation students (43 percent).

Pressure to be a role model
 “In some cases, the student feels a lot of pressure to succeed. It’s called the ‘golden child syndrome,’ and while it seems like a positive—who wouldn’t want so many people excited about you going to college?—it can cause stress.”

Fear of growing apart
“There may be some tension, and it is usually based on fear. Family members may fear that the student will not want to be around them any more or not be able to relate. Family members may be jealous of the student’s success and opportunities for a different life.”

Here’s what helps:

  1. “Look around your campus for special programs or newsletters for family members, which can help them become more aware of what you’re facing.”
  2. “Being honest, open, and communicative may not fix some of the issues, but will help.”
  3. Know that it’s OK to struggle. “Sometimes we are taught that failing is not an option because of our circumstances. However, it’s okay to fail, to not understand what you want to do just yet, to be afraid. Just remember to get up and try again.”
    —Zhakaysha Garrett, First in the Family resident assistant/advisor, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

What advice would you give other first-generation students?

The social aspect is essential, so get involved in activities. I joined a sorority, became a poetry editor and author, and was part of a public speaking group. Making it through college is one of the most rewarding things you can do in your life.

How awareness helps first-gen students thrive

Help students be aware of how their background matters
In a 2014 study, educating students about how their diverse backgrounds might influence their college experiences resulted in those students making better use of college resources (e.g., meeting with professors), getting higher GPAs, and reporting improved emotional health and engagement during the transition to college, according to Psychological Science.

At the First in the Family Community at Pacific Lutheran University, Washington, “Students explore their identity and how it applies to everyday life, which helps them see the good within it and learn how it can help them in the future,” says Zhakaysha Garrett, a First in the Family resident assistant/advisor. “This includes how family affects how we decide what we want do in college, how our financial situation may or may not affect how we interact with others (or our decision making), how we may or may not like asking for help because we want to do things on our own, and the pressure to not fail because we have real-life examples of what could happen to us if we don’t complete college.”

The First in the Family Community has a dedicated residence hall and organized community experiences designed to meet the needs of first-generation students. The program includes:
  • Connecting students with first-generation faculty; this enables students to network, find support, and “see that they can accomplish their dreams and goals.”
  • Connecting students with campus resources and emphasizing the importance of using them.
  • Exposing students to scenarios requiring conflict resolution and communication skills.

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