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First in Your Family to Go to College?

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I want to teach you more about preparing for college as a first-generation student.

Being the first one in your family to attend college is intimidating.  It can feel like you are hiking a rooted and rocky path alone with no end of the mountain top within reach.  From the intense college application process to asking for advice from people you love, this is a period of stressful transitions and beautiful beginnings.  Take a moment to acknowledge the hard work you put in to get to this moment!  A moment that perhaps you thought was not possible or were told by others that you couldn’t achieve.  You did it!  You are a warrior.  So, take a moment to feel that strength!  The mountain top is near, and you can reach the top.

I have helped first-generation students transition from high school into the college world for the past few years.  Many of the kids I have had the honor and privilege of working with students of color whose parents are immigrants from another country. First, let’s talk about some of the challenges that first-generation students face and discuss how to combat them.

Dealing with the application process. The college application process is intense for everyone and anyone.  However, first-generation students have to navigate the process themselves entirely, without the help of a parent or guardian.  Working with a guidance counselor or a community-based organization can really help with the process.  Look for a community-based organization to help you stay motivated and meet other first-generation students.  There are various national organizations, including I’m First and Quest Bridge, to serve first-generation students on their journey to college. Some critical tips for the application process are not to procrastinate, stay organized by making a list of what you need to do, utilize free online resources, and physically visit schools if possible.  Check out our blog post on visiting schools for more tips.

Family guilt and shame are another big challenge first-generation students may face.  Choosing to pursue something your family or guardians did not can create a lot of pressure.  Guilting a student into the cost or affordability of college, statements about abandoning the family, or even expectations of contributing to the family are all real situations that students face.  Setting solid boundaries early on is crucial to not feeling manipulated into a situation you do not want to endure. You are not rejecting or dismissing your family.  You are trying to better your life and continue your education. You are the kid, and they are the adult, remember that and don’t feel bad for taking this moment for yourself.

Anxiety and feelings of being an imposter on campus are real sentiments that students face as first-generation.  Anxiety can stem from not knowing what to expect when attending college, the prospect of finances, stress on being accepted by peers, or the ability to handle academics.  Feeling like you don’t belong in college is also commonly felt by first-generation students.  Reading blogs, diving into YouTube videos made by first-generation kids, and joining clubs on campus can help you find a sense of community and belonging.  Finding a mentor who has been through college is a beautiful way to gain insight into college’s academic and social aspects.  Also, going on tour and speaking with students is another great way to connect and feel ready for college.

Being academically under-prepared for college is something I have noticed with many of my first-generation students, but this can apply to any student from a lower-income community with school systems that are not as rigorous.  If you are in high school, try to take some advanced courses if they are offered.  Looking into classes at a local college is another great option.  There are also accessible online courses from top colleges through Mooc, which can help enhance a resume and provide some academic stimulation.  Other tips for kicking some academic butt include learning how to take notes (check out more notetaking tips), participate in class, self-advocate if you don’t understand something, get help at a tutoring center, don’t procrastinate, and practice good time management.

Remember that you are not alone!  Many students (nearly half of the college population) are first-generation and make it through college.  They are all hiking the same trail as you, navigating all of those roots and rocks.  You can make it to the top and find others are there who will help along the way.

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