It’s Not Easy Being First

By Taylor Engler on September 15, 2013
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If you’re the first person from your family to be on a trajectory towards college, it may feel like a lot pressure is riding on your shoulders. Pressure from your family, your teachers, and, most of all, from yourself can make the college admissions process and even the prospect of attending school seem daunting.

First-generation college students face many challenges that are different from those faced by their peers. But with hard work, determination, and the help of the many resources available to them, a first-generation college student can be made into a first-generation college graduate.

Alejandra Almonacid is a first-generation college student at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. Not only is she the first in her family to go to school, but she is doing it thousands of miles away from her home in Colombia. Almonacid said that for her, the difficulties of being a first-generation college-bound student began with the admissions process.

“The biggest challenge I faced in the applications process was that I had to do everything alone,” Almonacid said. “All the applications and preparing for the SATs was difficult, especially since my parents did not speak English and were unable to help me with anything.”

If you’re feeling alone in the admissions process as Almoncaid once did, your high school counselor is a great person to start with to find support. Almonacid was creative, turning to her local Boys and Girls Club for help with her applications. A similar group in your area may be the key to getting help. You can also be your own guide and check out a number of Web sites that offer advice and insight into the admissions process.

The cost challenge

After applications, the cost of college is the next hurdle faced by most first-generation students. According to CollegeBoard.com, the average public college currently costs over $7,000 annually, while the average private school costs over $26,000 per year. These staggering figures can seem like an insurmountable obstacle, especially since most first-generation students come from low-income or working-class families.

“Most likely, if you are a first-generation college student, your parents don’t have the funds necessary to pay for all of college,” says Almonacid. “My biggest advice to students is to look hard for the money. There are many scholarships, grants, and organizations out there that are always giving out money. You just have to find them and apply.”

Almonacid put a lot of time and effort into finding such funds, and her work paid off with a full-ride scholarship to Syracuse. According to College Board, $168 billon is available to college students looking for financial support in 2010, the key for students needing aid is to be proactive in searching and applying.

Even with financial help, many first-generation college students may still struggle to afford school. Such struggles make them more likely to attend part-time, live off-campus with relatives, or work-full time to make their own money, says the counseling center at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Because these situations differ from the experience of most other college students, first-generation students may feel like they don’t fit in with the crowd.

Furthermore, first-generation college students are more likely to be ethnic minorities. According to the Web site First in the Family, only 20 percent of college-aged Hispanic students and 31 percent of college-aged Black students are enrolled in college, compared with 41 percent of white students and 60 percent of Asian students. Many of those Hispanic and Black students have parents who did not attend college.

Minority students may also have difficulty feeling culturally integrated on predominantly white campuses, says the counseling center at Urbana-Champaign. They suggest that these students can help themselves through such difficulties by joining campus groups, speaking openly about their experiences, and taking advantage of resources such as mentoring programs.

The biggest thing to remember as a first-generation college student is not to doubt yourself. Despite being highly intelligent, the obstacles they face can make first-generation students feel inadequate and like they don’t belong.

If dealing with such feelings, it’s important to remember that you deserve to be at the school that admitted you, and to rely on the same intelligence and hard work habits that brought you to college. If you can fight through with these, you will be guided through your four years and on through graduation.


About the Author

Taylor Engler

Taylor Engler

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