Natalie is currently working in city government in NYC. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012 and finished her Masters in Teaching with Teach for America in Indianapolis in 2014.
To be “the first” in any realm is a great accomplishment. Walking into unchartered territory alone and independently discovering the unknown is a feat. The journey of a first-generation student should be similarly celebrated as they leave their household to be the first in their family to walk onto a college campus.
A first-generation student is defined as a student whose parents do not have a college education. First-generation students, regardless of their merit, may face financial, academic, social, and other setbacks that their peers, who hail from educated families, do not.
As a first-generation student who has obtained both a Bachelor’s and Master’s, I myself understand the deep challenges that students from these backgrounds face. However, I also understand what it takes to move past these barriers, and achieve despite what one’s parents do.
While a plethora of college advice is available, there is limited advice that tailors towards first-generation students. With the following pieces of advice, though, I hope to close that gap.
- Don’t compare yourself to others: you were accepted for a reason
Suddenly in a college setting, a first-generation student is surrounded by successful and academically motivated peers. In high-school, a first-generation student may have been used to being “on top” academically, among more apathetic peers with similar backgrounds.
Yet, in college, the tables turn. In a flash, every student that one interacts with is bright and ambitious. A first-generation student can find themselves bogged down with nerves or thoughts like “Should I be here?” or “Am I smart enough?” or “Am I good enough?” These thoughts are normal. The way to overcome them is with a stark reminder that you ARE supposed to be there and that the college admissions committee did not make some mistake and you are not a fraud. If you do need the academic help, though…
- Go to the writing center or tutoring center
After you have stopped comparing yourself to others around you, take the time to truly assess your academic ability – FOR YOU. Oftentimes, first-generation students are academically behind – FOR NOW. Academic ability is temporary and even you are behind your peers this is not a roadblock. Seek out the resources at your school, such as the writing center or tutoring centers.
Even though I had taken my school’s most challenging AP courses, the texts that we read were nothing compared to my 101 Political Science course. I was far behind in reading level and did not understand the writing prompts for my essays, at all. Instead of sulking, or comparing myself to others, I immediately established an appointment with the writing center, where I dissected the essay prompt and reading materials with the aid of a grad student. This also didn’t come without attending office hours of my professor and forming study groups with those in my class. By my junior year of college, I felt academically up to par and confident – I just needed to build my academic muscles more than my peers, but my place at the academic table was just as deserved.
- Seek out mentors in professors and those you work with. Be honest about your situation.
Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of vulnerability and honesty. Professors can be intimidating for first-generation students. At least for me, my first conversation with a professor was the most educated person I had ever been around in my life. However, professors are also PEOPLE too, and they most likely became professors because of the relationships that they can build with young adults. SO TALK TO THEM.
Visit them during their office hours. Try to get to know more about the professors that you are particularly interested in the same subject. Take multiples of their classes. Ask them for lunch – you’d be surprised! During these meetings though, be honest with them about where you come from. I asked a particular professor that I liked to be my thesis advisor my senior year, even though I had only had one class with her. During our meetings, we talked about our personal lives and I expressed to her that I was a first-generation student. And you know…she was a first-generation college student, too! Immediately we had built a bond and our conversations became more fruitful.
- Find meaningful work during the school year and summer, if possible.
Many students who are of first-generation backgrounds are financially independent. Therefore, while academics are a huge priority – so is getting a job and making ends meet. During my first two years of college, I worked shifts at the grocery store whenever I went back home and waited tables while in college.
There is nothing wrong with these entry-level jobs, and I kept my job at the grocery store during holidays. However, I immediately started to see a gap between my peers from more affluent backgrounds. They were landing unpaid internships and gaining meaningful professional experience while I could only afford entry-level positions.
I knew that in order to get a job in this economy immediately after, I would need jobs with more marketable work experience – and that sadly my degree would not be enough. Yet, I couldn’t afford all of these unpaid internships typically given to undergrads, and the paid internships were super competitive.
I came across a few options – DO YOUR RESEARCH on the internship programs available at your college. Some colleges allow unpaid internships to be part of credit hours. Therefore, you could drop a class and do an unpaid internship instead, and keep your entry-level job on the side to make cash. Also, check out the scholarships that are offered with your financial aid office. Oftentimes, these offices give away scholarships/grants to students of low-income backgrounds who have an unpaid internship.
Another option is to apply to on-campus federal work study jobs. My financial aid package did not give me federal work-study, but I applied to a job at the library anyway. Once they realized I wasn’t work-study – they found room in their budget to employ me because they really needed the extra hands, anyway. It doesn’t hurt to try!
Bottom line: the opportunities are endless in terms of getting meaningful work experience without breaking the bank – it’s worth it!
- Appreciate your background.
Last but not least, you must appreciate where you come from. While there are many disadvantages to being first-generation, and the financial battle is tumultuous, there are many qualities that make you more successful than peers.
First-generation students understand the meaning of hard-work and working with true purpose. You are a role model for your family and the people around you. Also, you demystify the stereotype that those from low-income backgrounds cannot succeed.
So continue walking through that unchartered territory and walk the stage at graduation with immense pride.