Resources for First-Generation Students

First-generation students are often the first in their families to start college. Nearly a third of undergraduates in the U.S. are first-generation, defined as those who have no parent with a bachelor’s degree.

How Might My College Experience Be Different?

First-generation students may feel they lack some of the resources and knowledge necessary to navigate the complex college system. Their families may not understand the demands of college work, putting additional pressure on the new student to “succeed.” Students without mentors can struggle to stay focused and graduate on time.

Common Feelings

As a first-generation college student, you should know you are not alone. Many of the feelings you experience are normal and to be expected. These common feelings often include the following:

Excitement and Anxiety – Being away from home and living independently for the first time can be both thrilling and frightening. Many students ask themselves, “Am I cut out to be a college student?” despite a stellar academic performance in high school.

Responsibility – Many first-generation students have to help pay for their education, often with loans, scholarships, or grants. In addition, these students can be pressured by family and friends to return home often. They may receive mixed messages about their changing identities (e.g., wanting to succeed but not wanting to be different from the rest of the family or peers).

Pride – There is often an overwhelming pride about being the first in your family to attend and complete college.

Guilt – It's easy for first-generation students to feel guilt about having the opportunity to attend college when others in the family did not. They may wonder if it is fair to be at school while their parents struggle financially, which can lead to feeling the need to go home to support their families. In addition, they can feel guilty about academic performance if it is not as good as they or their families would like.

Embarrassment and Shame – It's not unusual for these students to feel embarrassed over their socioeconomic status or the level of education in their families. They may try to act like their family is more highly educated or financially advantaged than they actually are in reality. Particularly if their peers have a long lineage of family members attending college or seem to know the "lingo" a first-generation student may not.

Confusion - First-generation students often feel "out of the loop" when it comes to college processes and procedures such as application, graduation, job or graduate school searches, etc. They may not be aware of the resources or options available to them after graduation.

Recommendations for Students

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation students are more than twice as likely to leave school within three years than students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree. Below are some tips to ensure you complete your degree and have a positive college experience:

  • Get support – Whether you live on campus or not, stay connected to MCPHS and get the support you need to feel more integrated with other students. Join groups, organizations, or support groups that interest you. Also, talk with people you trust about your experiences as you adjust to college and a new environment.
  • Communicate – In times of transition, it can be helpful for individuals to communicate what they are experiencing and what they need from one another. You may feel different from your family and peers as you grow and develop. This is a natural process for all college students and it can be helpful to share your experience with others.
  • Utilize resources – Take advantage of mentoring programs and various offices and resources designed to assist you. These services help you navigate the college terrain and feel understood and connected. You can also benefit from getting to know an upper-level first-generation student who has already been there a few years and can "show you the ropes."
  • Maintain a balance – With all the demands of academics, work, family, and social life, you need to find a way to balance competing needs. Having a schedule will help you manage those competing interests and demands. And remember that the same hard work, perseverance, resilience, and resourcefulness that helped you get into college will also help you thrive here.

Recommendations for Family Members

Families may feel confused about what their first-generation student is doing at college. Here a a few things to keep in mind that can help ensure the success and happiness of everyone involved:

Learn about the college process and what to expect – It can be helpful for family members to attend orientations, meet with advisors, and get to know campus resources so they can be more familiar with what their student is experiencing.

Be patient with one another – This is a learning process for the whole family. Remember, you are all going through this for the first time so there is a learning curve. Being patient with yourselves and each other is essential.

Suggested Readings

  • Cushman, Kathleen. First in the Family: Your College Years, Advice about College from First-Generation Students. Providence, RI: Next Generation Press, 2006.