The Biggest Challenges Facing First Generation College Students
(and how to overcome them)

4 votes

A first-generation college student is any student who is the first in their family to pursue a four-year degree. Does that sound like you? Or will that be you in the near future? If so, congratulations! You’ve made a decision to pursue a degree, enhance your education, and open up hundreds of new doors for yourself professionally.


First-generation college students are unique. They’re often highly motivated, independent and goal-oriented individuals. These attributes will serve them well in their academic and professional lives. However, there are unique difficulties to being a first-generation student as well. Knowing what these are can help you better prepare for your course of study and ensure success.


1. Finances

If higher education has always been the expectation in your home, chances are your family has been putting away money for tuition since the day you were born. For many first-generation students, however, this simply isn’t the case. As tuition prices in the U.S. continue to rise, affording college has become an obstacle even for students whose families have been saving for them. Tuition becomes all the more daunting if family financial support isn’t an option.


As pointed out in an article from the Washington Post by researcher Linda Banks-Santilli, further financial difficulties may arise for students whose families don’t have experience with higher education. They may not have knowledge of how the financial aid system works, or know how to apply for student loans. First generation-students may have to figure this out on their own.


What’s more, if you are already part of the workforce and contributing to your family’s financial wellbeing, it will be more difficult to drop everything to go off to study.


Luckily, for first-generation students struggling with finances, there are solutions. Many online degree programs offer students a high-quality education for little cost, and some are even tuition free. An online program will also allow students to continue working or stay close to home if they are needed. This can remove a few obstacles standing in the way of your education.


When it comes to loans and financial aid, you may have to do some studying on your own to know the ins and outs. Go online and educate yourself about federal financial aid, scholarships and student loans. Also, seek out a mentor who can help you. Turn to your school’s guidance counselor, a friend who has gone through college, or a colleague from work who will be able to answer your questions or point you in the right direction.


2. Preparedness

A university education is very different from a high school education. The difference in expectations and challenges that students face is often a shock to the system for freshmen. Students whose parents or guardians have been through it all before will have a leg up on those whose parents have not. It may not be fair, but these students will come in already fluent in academic terminology and culture, while first-generation students will just be starting to learn all that. What’s more, when things get rough these students can turn to their families for support, while the families of first-generation students are not always as able or as willing to do so.


As I mentioned before, however, first generation students also have a leg up. This comes in the form of their motivation, independence and tenacity. To brace yourself for the challenges of a new educational experience, you must first embrace these challenges. Go in knowing that it will be difficult, and that it will be difficult because it’s worth it.


Wherever it is that you study, whether from home or in a dorm room, put up a pin-board with some images that remind you why you are pursuing your degree. Reminding yourself of your dreams and goals will help you get through tough exam weeks.


According to the same Washington Post article, first generation students are more likely than non-first generation students to site helping their families and their communities as a motivation for their study, so put up a picture of your family as well.


In addition to this, there are great resources you can check out to help familiarize yourself with a college environment before you arrive. Read “1001 Things Every College Student Should Know.” Take off a Saturday night, order pizza and binge watch college movies. And remember, even those who seem the most savvy during their freshmen years are secretly just as new to the environment as anyone else is, so try not to be intimidated.


3. Guilt

The third issue facing first generation students (and what Ms. Banks-Santilli says is the biggest of them all) is guilt. But what does this mean?


Many first generation students feel guilt that they are abandoning their families and communities by pursuing higher education, or that they are sending a message to their families that they are too good for them, or want to be “better” than them.


It’s sad but true that many families play into this. They may perceive their child’s educational ambitions as a turning away from the family. When this happens, the parents or guardians are unable to be emotionally or financially supportive, and the child (who already has a lot on his or her plate getting ready for school) has a brand new stress to occupy his or her mind.


There’s no easy solution to this problem, but I think the answer lies in communication. When discussing your educational ambitions with your family, be transparent and open. If you share your dreams, and show your family where those dreams come from, they will understand and feel included.


Further, once your education starts you can reassure your family that you have not abandoned them by calling or visiting regularly.


Many first generation students ease this tension by pursuing an online degree, which allows them to work towards their degree without leaving the family’s home or stop working.


Remember, getting your degree isn’t always going to be easy, and that’s true for everyone. The additional struggles faced by first generation students may feel like a heavy load to bear, but remind yourself to always feel proud. You are the first person in your family to go out for this difficult, rewarding and exciting new achievement, which is already a huge achievement in and of itself.