The feeling you experience when you are admitted into college is irreplaceable. For first generation students, this feeling is intensified by a million. Knowing that your parents moved to a foreign place (if they did) and risked everything for your education and betterment of life is something that we can never repay. Since we started our educational journey, we were always reminded of our parents’ struggles and how our success would have made all the barriers worth breaking.
Along with our education being a main priority, many first-generation students had other household responsibilities to take on at young ages. From making phone calls and setting up appointments to helping our parents manage their bank accounts and fill out tax forms, we broke barriers along with them. Making your parents proud and being admitted to college is a huge weight lifted off your shoulders; you’ve beaten the odds and proven that anyone can make it.
However, the new weight of college is piled on top. Not having parents who have experienced this before makes aspects of college, like finances and deciding a major, knowledge that you have a few months to learn the basics about. Also, your responsibilities at home stay with you, leaving for calls with your mom while studying for your midterm and mentally preparing yourself for a long shift at work because your professor wants you to buy another useless textbook. Being a first generation student is far from easy but well worth it once you walk across that stage to receive your degree. Here are some aspects of the life of a first generation college student.
1. Dealing with astronomically high expectations.
Parents of first generation students have exceptionally high expectations for their kids. However, no one would expect anything less from people who literally risked everything and more to provide a better life for their families. Meeting the expectations of going to college is a great feeling, but before you know it, there are more expectations being piled on higher and higher. We’re basically expected to go to school, work and still take care of our families all while studying for classes and acing our next midterms.
“My parents have always stressed that they came to the United States to create a better life for me and my siblings, and I don't want their efforts and their sacrifices to go to waste. My mom left her entire life in Mexico to be able to come to the U.S. and achieve the American dream, while sending money back to her parents to pay for her father's medical bills, as he had Alzheimer's. She has told me it has been a very hard journey to get to where she is now, but it was worth it in the end because she has a family that she is able to support. I wouldn't want to disappoint my parents after they have gone through many hardships in their lives just to be able to live here in America, which is the reason why I do my best in keeping up with my school work.” — Kim, Class of 2020
2. Not knowing where to start or how to get to where you want to be.
Being the first to experience the journey to higher education is a hassle. We are barely exposed to the idea of college, financial aid and requirements until our junior year of high school, which is too late. Without our parents to guide us, finding out how to start and where to go may cause us to feel lost. However, a good place to start is through the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP). EAOP is a lifeline for low income and first generation students in giving us early insight about how to successfully get to college.
“The way I think being a first generation student impacted me the most was actually through my high school days. My parents and I knew nothing about four year universities or what people even went to them for (as stupid as that sounds). If it weren't for EAOP, I would have never got the motivation I needed to push myself academically in high school. I think that if I would've known about the UC requirements and expectations right when I started high school, I would've ended up in a better school or at least would've had more options." — Edgar, Class of 2019
3. Applying to college.
The college application process is the most stressful and daunting time of your senior year in high school. The applications are tedious and ask for so much that you don’t know where to begin and how to even answer the questions. Not having parents who have gone through the process makes your application feel riskier and unprepared.
“What freaked me out most was the level of autonomy I had for choosing a majority of my colleges. My parents already stacked up on a bunch of reach schools (all based on prestige and the likes), but it was solely up to me to decide on where I would best fit in. Writing college supplements was also nerve-wracking, because I didn't have relatives to thoroughly read them over; I mostly relied on my friends' guidance, and even then we were all in the same boat. It was honestly the most growing up I've ever done!” — Syeda, Class of 2021
4. Feeling like you have no one to directly relate to in your immediate family.
The inability to go to your parents for advice about college takes a toll on first generation students. Having to rely on counselors, Google and any other place that can give us information makes the college process impersonal and more difficult to navigate. Sometimes, you really feel like the world is plotting against your chances of going and graduating college.
“Being a first gen college student was actually pretty hard. Even though my sisters went to/currently attend college, I couldn't really confide in them about what troubles I had. In some cases, they did help a bit with applying for FAFSA because they've done it before but that was about it. I couldn't go to my parents since neither of them went, and it made it extremely hard for me to communicate to them about what I'm studying and how the school/professors work... My sisters weren't much help either because they're first gen too and are still learning the ropes as much as I am.” — Jazzy, Class of 2020
5. Not knowing who to ask for help.
A challenge that many students face is who to ask for help. Although you have access to many different educators, counselors and other experienced adults, it is difficult to find someone who you can trust to tell personal information to. Finding an adult who has gone through the same experiences that you have as a first generation student as well as someone you can confide in is extremely difficult.
“As immigrants, my parents had no idea whatsoever about the American education system. As a result, I had to seek out help from teachers and friends. I solely depended on my teachers and counselors to help me make hard decisions like which AP [classes] to take, which colleges to apply to, which scholarships to apply to, etc. I think the hardest part of the process is opening up to others about my financial situation because I didn't want it to seem like I'm seeking pity and I definitely didn't want it to be awkward. Thankfully, everyone was very helpful.” — Flosha, Class of 2021
6. The difficulty of deciding which college to attend and what major to pursue.
We are never given real guidance from our parents about what college to go to. As long as it’s some form of college, you’re good to go. Or if you come from a family like mine, there are no other colleges to consider besides the ones featured in some top college article in Forbes Magazine. Choosing a college based on prestige and popularity might please your parents, but might also mean that you’ll end up somewhere that isn’t for you. As this piece was personal for me, I included my own insight about this aspect of being a first gen student.
“For some first gen parents, they are happy if you get into college. Period. However, with my background, my parents pushed towards Cal without realizing the 17 percent acceptance rate. They didn’t know much about Cal besides it being a top college so their dream was for me to go there and pursue a major that will give me stability in the future. I never had real interest in economics or sciences or medicine, but with my parents wanting so much for me, I chose a major that they would be happy about and that I could learn to love.” — Joyce, Class of 2020
7. Being anxious about finances.
In 2008, a study showed that there are currently more than 4.5 million low-income, first generation students enrolled in postsecondary institutions. In 2017, that number has only risen. In most cases, first generation students come from low-income families, making college feel even more out of reach. Although FAFSA and other grants help with the cost of tuition, other costs of food, textbooks and other necessities arise and add up. In order to keep our independence and to help our parents out, many first generation students take on jobs during the academic year, which may cause problems in our ability to focus and succeed in school.
“It makes me anxious that my parents will stretch every dime just to make sure I get through school healthy and with good grades. I was working at McDonald's while being on the crew team so I could pay for gas and food, but I found myself only sleeping 2 hours a day and on a special occasion I didn’t sleep for 56 hours because I had to go to work, go to practice and I had to study for a chem midterm. It wasn’t until I ended up in the hospital that I told my parents what I had been doing and they told me to quit and that they would pay for gas and food. I still managed to do well in all my classes.” — Victoria, Class of 2018
8. The stress of balancing college and home life.
With parents from a foreign country, the aspects of the American life can be difficult. Beginning with language barriers and ending with government forms, first generation students learned more than needed at young ages. Taking on so many responsibilities for our parents made us somewhat vital to our families. As college approaches, many first generation students must handle the ongoing balance of their academic and family lives.
“I was expected to be independent financially, emotionally and academically with the added responsibilities of being the eldest daughter of an immigrant family. Navigating academics was definitely the most difficult. There are no road maps for first gens: You make mistakes and you fix them. The first two years of college were definitely the hardest. You learn to live independently, how to study and most importantly, that this experience is for yourself.” — Sandra, Class of 2016
There is no doubt that college is hard for everyone. However, there is extra pressure added to first generation students. With our pride, academics and finances constantly on the line, we try more than our best to succeed. Having high expectations from our families and even higher expectations from ourselves, college will be one of the biggest challenges we will ever mentally and physically face. On the other hand, we are given a chance to test ourselves and to learn and grow into adults. So a toast to us, first generation students, for beating the odds!