A first generation college student is a student who is the first person in his or her family to attend a college or a university. Sometimes the term is used to refer to students who are the first in their family to complete college, or to become a first generation college graduate.
First generation college students have quite a bit to be proud of. However, they also face challenges that are different than students who come from families where a college expectation is considered the norm. At many schools, these students are considered to be at high risk for academic failure or for attrition (another word for “dropping out.”)
Here are some of the challenges encountered by many first generation college students, and some of the resources these students can seek out to make their journey a little easier.
Challenges for First Generation College Students
For students who are the first in their families to attend college, the expectations they face may be overwhelming. On the one hand, many first generation students feel a great deal of pressure to succeed, and perhaps to do exceptionally well. The pride that parents and other family members may feel can be a source of strength and encouragement, but at the same time this can amount to the fear of letting others down. In relation to this, some first generation college students feel guilty that they are getting opportunities other family members did not get, which may equate to even more pressure to succeed.
On the other hand, other first generation college students may experience pressure from family members to drop out, or disrespect from family members when they try hard to succeed. In some families where no one has gone to college, family members disapprove of the student’s choice to attend college or feel that a family member is “selling out” or becoming different for making this life choice. More simply, they may not understand or respect the time commitment involved in a college education, and give a student a hard time if he or she is less able to participate in family activities.
First generation college students also lack the kind of advice and support received by many students whose family members have gone to college. Even if a first generation college student has highly supportive parents, these parents may be unable to offer advice about dorm life, college academics, college activities, and all the everyday life experiences of a college student. In addition, the parents of first generation college students may lack important knowledge about how the complicated financial aid system works.
In addition, if a first generation college student attends a school where most of the other students are more traditional, they may feel like they stand out or do not fit in. This is even more true if a student comes from a different culture or socioeconomic background than the majority of students. When other students have nicer cars, cell phones, computers, and other stuff, it’s easy to feel embarrassed.
Resources for First Generation College Students
Although it can be difficult to be a first generation college student, most colleges and universities have resources available to help these students succeed. For starters, when a prospective first generation college student is looking at schools, it’s important to ask direct questions about the kinds of resources that are available, and to choose a school that makes a serious commitment to helping these students. Once a student is on campus, it’s important to seek out these resources actively.
Here are some of the kinds of resources colleges and universities sometimes tailor specifically to the needs of first generation college students:
Freshmen orientation programs
Academic advising and mentoring
Tutoring and other forms of academic support
Summer programs before freshman year to introduce students to college
Informational meetings for parents of first generation college students
Some schools offer mentorship programs in which an experienced first generation college student is paired with a new one. If a school doesn’t offer this service, it can be very helpful for a new student to seek out the help of an older one for this kind of mentorship.
In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that there are plenty of scholarships for first generation college students. Students who fall into this category should search specifically for these scholarships when doing an online or library search, and should inquire about these scholarships to high school guidance counselors and academic advisors.
A Bright Future for First Generation College Students
Students whose families have always gone to college simply may not understand the challenges faced by students who are representing their families in college for the first time. Fortunately, for students who seek out the proper resources, many colleges and universities are more than happy to lend these students a hand as they navigate their way through the college experience.
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