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  • If you’re a first-generation college student, it means that neither of your parents earned a four-year degree.
  • First-generation students may be looking for additional guidance when applying to college and earning their degree.
  • Guidance counselors, academic advisors, and non-profit organizations can all be great resources for first-generation college students.

Navigating college as a first-generation student

Being the first one in your family to go to college is a big deal. You may be embarking on a journey that no one in your circle has experienced yet. As a first-generation college student, you have lots of great opportunities as well as some unique challenges. From applying to college to earning your degree and finding a job, it can be a lot to navigate—especially if you don't have family members who’ve gone through it before to provide first-hand guidance.

Chances are you may be feeling like you’re on your own to figure it all out—but you’re not alone. Here are some important tips every first-generation college student can use to successfully navigate college from start to finish.

What is a first-generation college student?

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, you’re a first-generation student if neither of your parents earned a four-year degree. That means you’re still a first-generation student if you have a sibling who completed college. However, some schools have different definitions. For example, at some universities, a first-generation college student is anyone who self-identifies as not having exposure to or knowledge of higher learning. That might mean:

  • One of your parents earned a four-year degree outside of the United States.
  • You’ve only had close contact with people who didn’t go to college or have minimal experience with higher learning.
  • You or a parent feel unfamiliar with college culture.

Be sure to check with your school to see if you qualify as a first-generation college student.

Common challenges for first-generation college students

College can be an overwhelming time for anyone, but first-generation students may face additional challenges.

Challenge 1: Paying for college

One Brookings analysis found that the average family income for a first-generation college student is $58,000 compared to $120,000 for non-first-generation students. Keeping up with the financial demands of college might be more of a challenge, especially if you’re juggling school with other life demands like work and family. Financial aid is available and provides a path forward, but your family may not be aware of how it works.

  • Complete the FAFSA®: The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the first step in securing financial aid like federal student loans, grants, and work-study. However, only 57% of high school graduates from the class of 2021 completed the FAFSA, according to the National College Attainment Network. By not filling out the FAFSA, you are missing out on financial aid that can help you pay for a higher education. If you need help completing the FAFSA, your counselor can be a good resource. You can also visit the FAFSA help page.
  • Apply for scholarships and grants: Scholarships and grants provide free money that doesn’t have to be repaid. They can help reduce the amount you ultimately have to borrow to pay for school. This type of financial aid is available at both public and private schools. When searching for scholarships and grants, you can cast a wide net or narrow your criteria to first-in-family and first-generation college students.

Challenge 2: Academic preparedness

As a first-generation student, you may feel more nervous about the rigor of college academics. Perhaps you didn’t have access to honors or advanced placement courses, or your school didn’t provide much support for first-generation students. Whatever the reason, transitioning to college may feel academically overwhelming.

  • Don’t be afraid to seek out academic support. Help and resources can be found in many places throughout campus. College professors have office hours where you can ask for extra help and seek advice. Most colleges also have academic advisors who can answer questions about your classes or major. And many campuses have learning centers where tutors can help you in any subject for free. Take advantage of all the resources available to you.
  • Build an academic schedule that feels manageable. Don’t take on more than you can handle and find ways to reduce stress if you’re struggling in a particular class. For example, don’t exceed the number of recommended classes per semester and seek guidance if you’re struggling in a particular class. Under your advisor’s guidance, you may be able to take a challenging class as pass/fail instead of earning a letter grade, which may help protect your GPA.

Challenge 3: Loneliness

It’s natural for any new college student to feel lonely, but first-generation students may be at higher risk of feeling isolated. For example, they may be the only one from their friend group to attend college. First-generation students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants may also feel a sense of culture shock. The good news is that there are ways to push through these challenges and protect your mental health.

  • Get involved on campus. Getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things can help you expand your social circle. Look for campus clubs, groups, extracurricular activities, and associations that sound interesting.
  • Take advantage of campus resources. Most schools have counselors and mental health services on campus that are included in the cost of attendance. You can also reach out to faculty and staff for guidance and support. When deciding which colleges to apply to, see what resources they have for first-generation students.
  • Connect with other students. If you live on campus, your resident advisor (RA) will probably organize social events for your dorm. Your school might also sponsor mixers and events for new students.
  • Consider a living-learning community. Some schools have residential communities that are centered on a shared identity or interest. For example, there are living-learning communities for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Others are for students who prefer to live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment. See if your school has anything similar for first-generation college students.

Challenge 4: Mentorship

Connecting with a mentor can be an important part of the college experience. The right person can take you under their wing and provide guidance that changes the trajectory of your life. One Gallup survey found that college graduates who had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals were almost twice as likely to be engaged at work. First-generation college students can benefit from a mentor who understands their experience.

  • Engage with career services and your school’s alumni network. Don’t be afraid to tap your school’s resources. They can help you connect with a mentor who was a first-generation student themselves.
  • Connect with folks who’ve been in your shoes. Again, being a first-generation student doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the first person in your family to go to college. Be sure to reach out to any siblings or other family members who could show you the ropes. The same goes for family friends, coaches, teachers, or anyone else who could be a potential mentor to you.

Other resources for a first-generation college student

The following non-profit organizations are aimed at helping first-generation college students:

As you move through the college application and eventually start school, it’s also wise to bring your parents into the conversation. It can help familiarize them with what’s going on—and prepare them if any of your siblings end up going to college after you.

If you’re a first-generation college student, the college experience might look and feel a little different—but there are resources to help make the journey a little easier. You might even feel inspired to mentor other first-generation students yourself one day.

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