Everything You Need To Know About Being A First Generation College Student

first generation college student

Being the first in anything is seldom easy. But being the first person in your family to attend college can be fraught with multiple fears. Some first gen students worry that they will let down their family if they have to leave college for any reason at all. Others struggle with guilt over leaving their families behind. Still more feel that they’ll be perceived as different at school–that they’ll stand out as someone who “doesn’t belong” in college.

If you’re the first in your family to hit campus, there’s one very important thing you should know: you are not alone. In fact, thirty percent of entering freshmen in the United States come from parents whose education ends with high school.

That’s not to say there aren’t real challenges that come with being a first gen student. Here are five tips you can use to help you cope with them a little better.

Inquire about any first gen student programs at the college.

You might be surprised by how many four year institutions have programs specifically for first gen students who are encountering unexpected hurdles. From Dartmouth and MIT to University of Iowa and Clemson University, colleges are providing programs that are devoted to supporting first gen students.  

And some schools go beyond that, providing support groups where First Gen students can get together and talk about what’s on their minds.

No resources at your school?  Find a support group online.

Online communities like I’m First  not only provides virtual mentoring for first gen students, but also has a blog written by other first gen students and articles tailored to particular sub-groups in the community, like students in foster-care or undocumented students.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help; that’s what the professors are there for!

Some first generation students are timid when it comes to asking for help. If you already feel like you don’t deserve to be in school, admitting to a professor that you need additional help might feel like a reinforcement of that idea.

Another thing to keep in mind? The reason you’re at that college, is because that college wants you to be there.

You applied. They chose you. And that means the school wants you to succeed. Take advantage of your school’s resources; most schools provide councilors, mentoring programs,  and tutors.

Don’t work too much–except during summer.

One thing that shocks incoming students–whether they’re first generation or not–are the unexpected, non-tuition expenses.   The College Board reports the average annual cost of textbooks is between 850 and 1,000 dollars.  

Even if you plan for those textbook costs, students often forget costs like  dorm needs (linens, towels, lamps); personal items (shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste); monthly costs (laundry, cell phone service); and transportation (public transportation, parking, trips home). You get the drift.

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For this reason, many students get a part-time job. While working during the school year isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, it’s imperative you don’t start taking on so many hours that you sacrifice spending time on school work and socializing with friends.

But with all those expenses, how can you afford college without working like crazy? The answer: save the overtime hours for your summer vacation and make a budget ahead of time. Shortly after you graduate high school, research your hidden college costs for the entire school year.  When you have a total number, save as much as you can during the summer to hit that amount.

One way to really trim your costs?  Skip spring break. We know, we know–all your friends are going down to Boca. Trust us: a few days partying at the beach isn’t worth the $2,000 or more that jacked up plane tickets, hotel and food will cost you. Airlines and hotels know that spring break is a popular time to travel. Accordingly, they often double the price they’d charge in off-season.

Expect some family friction.

There’s no doubt that family members are going to be proud of you. But because they haven’t been to college themselves, they may have a problem understanding how hard college actually is.  Why do you not call more? Why are you struggling for money? Why do you complain? Don’t you know how lucky you are?

Talk to your family before heading to college. Tell them ahead of time that you’re going to need their support because of all of the new challenges that you’re going to experience.

That’s not to say they’ll be perfectly understanding, which is why getting involved with first-generation groups on campus is so crucial (see tip #1). Don’t hold it against your family if they don’t understand, and do stay in touch with them. Calling mom might not top the list of fun things to do, but they’ll appreciate it.

The biggest thing is to remember you’re not alone. Over 4.5 million students are both first-generation and low-income. While you may have heard discouraging statistics–many first generation students don’t graduate on the first try–you can not only graduate, but excel.

They key is to plan, plan, plan. And be proud that you’re embarking on an amazing journey.