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Aug 18 2017
by Lillian Zhang

10 Reasons Why You Should Be Proud to Be a First-Generation Student

By Lillian Zhang - Aug 18 2017
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"First-generation" college students face many obstacles in pursuit of higher education. According to the National Center for Education (NCES), about 34% of incoming undergraduate students are the first in their families to attend college and earn a degree. Most are minorities and come from low-income backgrounds, and see college as a way to "bring honor" to their families. Many are children of immigrants, and believed pursuing a college education would help achieve the "American Dream." However, these students face a variety of financial, academic and social issues that impact their success in applying to, attending and graduating from college. Alone, each navigates their college journey with little knowledge of the resources available to help and achieve their dreams. Even after overcoming multiple barriers to attend college, 89% of low-income first-generation students still drop out without a degree, about four times the dropout rate of their peers that are from high-income families. Despite the array of hardships first-generation students endure, it's time to congratulate those that have made it so far! Here are ten reasons why no matter how stressful life gets in college, you should never be discouraged or back down:

1. You did everything on your own.

Your parents most likely didn't know the college application process, or anything related to school. While other students had a "foot in the door" to college admissions and standardized testing through their parents or relatives, you had to explore this whole new territory on your own. While tricky at first, there are plenty of resources online and from the guidance counseling office to help aid you. 


2. You've grown to be independent.

Without your parents' guidance, you've learned to meet deadlines on your own, reach out to teachers, guidance counselors or friends for tips and information and contact admissions representatives of schools you wished to attend. While juggling school, social life, work and family life, you managed to apply to several colleges, apply for scholarships and even applied for financial aid on our own like a champ. In college, some students may still even have their parents managing bills, so you're already a step closer to becoming completely independent. 


3. You are a diamond, because you work well under pressure.

Some first-generation students also have family responsibilities in addition to the school workload. You've spent your entire life taking care of your sibling(s) or parents, working a part-time job after school to help pay the rent bills and other costs of living at home. You've managed to finish all the tasks in one day while it may have taken a few extra days for others. Working around the clock, you thrive on pressure, because that keeps you on your toes to accomplish even more. Your work ethic has been fine-polished and you are better adapted into the high pressure environment. 


4. You've gained lots of love and respect from your friends and family.

They said you couldn't do it, because no one has ever done it in the family's history. Maybe a family relative has even said you're breaking the family tradition, and maybe you did get a little guilty you couldn't be the successor to your family-operated store or business. Then one day you find you're accepted to college! Surely, now you've proven to your family and friends that it is possible to attend college, even in your "unlikely" circumstances. 


5. You have a newfound sense of purpose.

You acquire a new sense of self and motivation to learn all you can. You want to impress not only your family, but yourself. You take risks and try new experiences to find your niche in college. When you realize that your purpose in learning is importantly for yourself, you make sure your efforts don't go to waste. 


6. You don't take life and college for granted.

Every day you wake up in college, you treat each day like a gift. You already lived through challenges in the past, and you remember the sacrifices your parents have made as well. You look forward to attending class lectures other students sleep in on, because education is a step closer to a happy and stable life. You try not to procrastinate, because you want to take advantage of all the precious time you've been given.


7. You are a role model to aspiring first-generation college students.

You become a living and breathing success story for all other low-income minority students back in your hometown. Your ability to accomplish something so significant against daunting odds made you an inspiration. You broke the cultural norm and standards in your family, and now others will follow in your footsteps.  


8. You can bring new perspectives into your class discussions and work. 

While sharing about your past and your family's culture, you are bringing new points and ideas into the discussion. All the while, your peers can benefit from learning about topics from economics to sociology from a different perspective. You are more open-minded in conversations with people from all backgrounds because you know they've also had difficulties in life and have different values. 


9. You are living the American Dream.

The American Dream has a completely different meaning and definition to each person, but the underlying theme of every single dream is an opportunity for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Your hard work resulted in a college education that puts you on track for that opportunity your parents sought. 


10. You have unlimited potential.

Every chance is yours to take. There is always room to grow, more knowledge to be gained, more friendships to make, and it all starts with you. Get out there, make yourself known and join the club or take the class you've always wanted to but never got the time to in college. You deserve all the opportunity in the world.


Remember, fellow first-generation college student, while you may not be the most academically or culturally prepared for college in comparison to students with college-educated parents, you are prepared to succeed. Go out there and achieve your dreams – for yourself, for your family, for your hometown. Reach out to your college adviser or a professor and ask if your school offers any programs or initiatives for first-generation students you could get involved in.

You may feel isolated attending college in an unfamiliar environment. At selective institutions, you will see income equality on campus as people walk by holding premium laptops or wearing $800 Canada Goose parkas. It may be hard to socially and emotionally face the economic gap and achievement gap in college, so never hesitate to seek out people you relate to and understand you, whether it be a friend, professor, or another first-generation student. We are all in this together! Below are great online resources to guide you on trek through college:

Strive For College

College Greenlight

I'm First

Go College Now

Good luck!

Lead Image Credit: Pexels




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Lillian Zhang - Barnard College

Lillian Zhang is a freshman at Barnard College who is undecided about her major and future. At her high school, she was the Features section editor for the school paper and was involved in leading and documenting "Give A Spit", a project that adds donors to the bone marrow registry. If she's not looking in the empty fridge waiting for food to suddenly materialize, you can find her taking serene walks in nature or listening to her Spotify playlists. Follow her on Instagram: @lillianzhanggg or (politically-charged) Twitter: @zhangliahs17

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