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Six Tips for First-Generation University Students

What do First Lady Michelle Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren have in common? They’re both first-generation college graduates. Nearly a quarter of all American college students identify as first-generation, but being the first in your family to enroll in and complete a university degree isn’t easy. Here are some tips for making the transition and succeeding in the world of post-secondary education.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
Six Tips for First-Generation University Students

According to varying reports, between 20 and 24% of American college students are classed as first-generation. But what is a first-generation student? In most cases, first-generation college students come from families where the parents, or primary care-givers, did not earn a university degree. In many instances, the student is the first in their family to enroll in higher education, and this comes with a unique set of challenges. Students who come from families that have college degrees might take for granted their knowledge of the university system, support networks like alumni contacts, or even simple things like knowing what to pack for life on campus, but for first-generation students, these things can mean the difference between completing a degree and dropping out. While only about 11% of first-generation students complete their bachelors degrees, many first-generation students express that completing and applying their studies is their top priority. So here are six tips to help first-generation students get a good start.

1. Prepare Early

Are You Ready

If you’re the first in your family to head off to college, start preparing early. There’s a lot that goes into applying for college – application essays, letters of recommendation, financial aid and scholarship applications, standardized test scores…the list goes on and on. And don’t forget about application fees. But preparing for college isn’t just about getting your application in on time. Many first-generation students concentrate their efforts on one university or college, but it can be a good idea to keep your options open. Some universities are more prepared to assist first-generation students, or offer more scholarships or mentorship programs. If you can’t visit your top choices, make sure to spend lots of time researching them online. Most university websites offer virtual tours, and alumni pages and social media are great ways to find out more about life on campus. Even if you’ve never set foot on a college campus, and no one in your family has any experience with university life, if you do your research you should be able to walk onto campus on the first day with the confidence and knowledge that you picked the right institution for your studies.

2. Brush-up your skills

Top view of students studying at the main hall university

Your parents may have helped you with your high school homework, but if they never attended college, they may not know what to expect from university-level courses, or where to find help when you need it. University courses are more advanced than high school and require a lot more independent study. But on top of that, most universities require that students demonstrate a certain skill level in writing and mathematics. Universities often offer remedial or transitional courses in these subjects, but they take time and money to complete, so if you’re a first-generation student hoping to maximize your studies, it’s a good idea to top-up your writing and math skills before you get to college. And don’t forget about all the on-campus study assistance. Repeating classes will also cost time and money, so head to your university’s writing center or find a tutor before your grades fall below passing. Most on-campus study services are free, but may require an appointment or a referral from a professor so don’t hesitate to visit the student services office early and ask questions.

3. Don’t feel guilty

Contused thinking woman bewildered scratching her head seeks a solution isolated on gray wall background. Young woman looking up

Beginning university can be daunting, but one of the biggest challenges faced by first-generation students comes from off-campus: friends and family back home. You may feel guilty because you’re not helping support your family or getting flack from friends who feel that college has changed you, but the fact is that you’ve chosen a university degree because it will help you to achieve your goals and dreams. More first-generation students than second-generation students report that they chose a college degree to help their family or communities, but regardless of why you wanted to attend university, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s the right decision for you. The best thing that you can do when you feel torn in two directions is to work hard and succeed – the people who care about you will see you thriving and come to understand that you made a good choice.

4. You’re not alone

And if college life starts to feel a bit lonely, or you feel that input from friends and family is more damaging than helpful, don’t give up. There are numerous support groups both on campus and online to help first-generation students deal with the challenges of university and find creative ways to succeed. Check your university’s student services or multi-cultural offices and find out if there’s a campus group for first-generation students. Meeting with others like yourself, even if it’s just to talk, could help a lot. Plus, groups like these are a great way to start networking – and when you’re starting from scratch, you can never start too early.

5. Find a mentor

Female College Student Working With Mentor

Or try to find a mentor. You might find a particularly sympathetic professor who can help you navigate the university system or seek out a leader in your chosen field. Either way, having a mentor who has experience in higher education can be a great resource. A mentor can help you choose a field that’s right for you, or help you make professional connections. A good mentor will also challenge you and push you to be your best. First-generation students can struggle at university because while friends and family might be supportive of the student’s studies, they don’t have the experience or resources to guide them through the university system. A mentor can take the place of that family support network. Again, check the student services office – your university might even have a network of professors who were also first-generation students.

6. Be confident

So, at the risk of sounding like an after-school special: whatever you do, don’t give up. And take pride in your accomplishments. Whether you come from a proud working-class background or hopeful immigrants searching for a better life, you’ve overcome many hurdles to attend university. For students who come from families with university degrees, college might just be another (albeit useful) rite of passage on a road to an already determined future, but university studies may be the one and only way for a first-generation student to achieve their career goals. If you’ve made it this far, you have the strength, the perseverance, and the skills to go further, so believe in yourself.