The college experience is a privilege that many are the first in their families to have, and it’s common for these students to go through the entire process alone. There are plenty of reasons why higher education isn’t right for everyone, but at the same time, it is celebrated and encouraged for people to receive a college degree. Without the guidance of family members who have attained college degrees, navigating the college application process and experience in general is not always easy for first-generation students.
Opportunities for public education are plentiful in the U.S., which is the primary drive for many immigrant families. With more than 40 million immigrants in the U.S. as of 2018, it is prevalent that the school system attracts migrants who don’t have similar privileges in their native countries. As a first-generation immigrant myself, the pressure of going to college was heavy, as it was expected that I would get into a good school and graduate with a well-paying job — as if it was that easy. Immigration aside, there is still a large number of first-gen white Americans who don't have the same opportunities compared to families with multiple bachelor's degrees.
Growing up as a first-generation immigrant involves many unique challenges: primarily, language barriers that hinder parents’ abilities to help with homework in their non-native language. If a student’s parents speak anything other than English as their first language, sometimes they might understand less than the student does, simply because the assignment was written in English.
First-generation students are more distanced from academia than students who come from families who have historically gone to college. A lot of the high school experience consists of college prep and taking advanced placement classes, but first-generation students aren’t fully aware of how much of an impact these have on getting into a respectable school. For first-gen students, academic responsibility does not only imply getting good grades; it is essential for tasks such as reaching out to counselors for college tips and advice. Applying to colleges requires that extra step from students whose parents might not be able to provide the same guidance at home.
High school can only prepare students to a certain extent as far as academics go, but once they start their freshman year of college, students are introduced to countless extracurricular activities they may have never heard of before. Without any background knowledge of organizations like Greek life and student-run clubs, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or incompetent as a first-generation student when entering college. The transition from high school to living an undergraduate lifestyle is stressful enough as it is, but with many opportunities available to college students, it may be difficult to figure out where to begin getting involved.
It is encouraged to get involved with activities outside of school and to study hard for good grades, but some first-generation students are responsible for their own school and housing finances as well. These students are expected to do well in school while dedicating their free time to extracurriculars despite needing to work part-time or full-time to afford their studies. If a student is accountable for paying for their own education, it puts them at an unavoidable disadvantage when having to balance a college lifestyle.
Many people would argue that first-generation students have an abundance of opportunities when it comes to college and the application process. Universities like to see the “first generation” label and tend to pay more positive attention to the student’s application; it’s often applauded when a young person strives to achieve certain opportunities that their parents were not as fortunate to have.
Mariam Naseem, a senior studying computational modeling and data analytics, weighed in on how being a first-generation student can affect college acceptances.
“First-generation students get advantages when they’re trying to get into college because of the ‘political correctness’ that universities participate in nowadays,” Naseem said. “But it’s not a bad thing, because the advantages are needed since first-gen students struggle more to get into college.”
Earning a college degree is an impressive achievement, but some consider this level of academic success to be indicative of one’s intelligence and grit. In many cases, education can be perceived as wealth, and families with a long line of college-educated people tend to be wealthier, which gives their kids a one-up from first-generation students. While both first-gen and non-first-gen students have advantages when getting their applications reviewed, it is undeniably more appealing to come from a family of Ivy League alumni than a family who may not have had similar financial opportunities, upbringings or connections.
“I don’t think I’m necessarily ahead of the game by simply being a first-generation student,” Naseem said. “I would just say I’m less complacent and more motivated because I feel like I had to work harder to get into college.”
First-generation college students encounter many hardships and feel a lot of pressure from their families. They’re expected to be successful in navigating their professional careers while dealing with applications and student loans — all without anyone else’s experience to reference. Nobody wants to let their family down, especially when their family is depending on them to succeed. When a student is the first in their family to go to college and expected to succeed with a lack of understanding of college life, expectations and resources, the future can be daunting. The hard work that first-generation students put into their role is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly and should be acknowledged more than stereotyped.
Being a first-generation student does not mean that a parent didn’t work hard or wasn’t qualified for higher education. This stigma is uncalled for and unrelated to students’ sincere motivations for a college degree. These students strive to change the trajectory of their family’s history and taking the opportunity to go to college may be the best way to accomplish that.
First-generation senior and environmental policy and planning major Garima Choubey talked about what it was like to maneuver through 12th grade and the college application process.
“I definitely felt alone for most of the process,” Choubey said. “It was hard trying to relate to my classmates who were confident in what they were doing because their parents were guiding them every step of the way.”
The title of “first-generation college student” is loaded with pride as it is used to describe young adults wanting to do better for themselves and their families. The efforts of college students with college-educated family members should not be invalidated or undermined, but the extra effort that first-generation students put forward to be on a level playing field is an accomplishment on its own. Higher education is becoming more diverse and inclusive which calls for conversations about community and uplifting one another. Moving forward, first-generation students should be recognized and celebrated, as they are the pioneers of higher education in their families.