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- Why Being a First-Generation College Student Matters
- Challenges of First-Generation College Students
- How First-Generation College Students Can Ensure Their Own Success
- How Colleges Support First-Generation Students
- Scholarships for First-Generation College Students
- Expert Interview: Insight for First-Generation College Students
- Resources and Tools for First-Generation College Students
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Online Guide for First Generation College Students
For the first in their families to go to college, it’s a new experience for everyone. There are applications, admissions, financial aid, scholarships, course loads, and so much more. This guide provides first-gen college students with the information and resources they need to get their college journeys started on the right foot.
Last Updated: 08/14/2020
In most cases, first-generation college students are defined as the first individuals in their immediate family to pursue a college degree. The Center for First-Generation Student Success defines a first-generation college student as an undergraduate whose parents do not possess a four-year degree. It is important that colleges and universities, admissions committees, academic advisors, high school counselors, and related parties pay attention to the needs of first-generation college students. In many cases, they face academic, cultural, and financial challenges that other degree-seekers may not. Even if prospective first-generation students find themselves enrolled in a college or university, one in three students in this demographic will quit college within three years.
Using the information in this guide can save prospective first-generation college students time, energy, and even hard-earned money. We offer a detailed breakdown of the college journey that first-generation students endure today, from early preparation and applying to degree programs to finding scholarships and getting the most out of their time as a student.
Why Being a First-Generation College Student Matters
First-generation students may experience a number of hurdles, both internal and external, that makes pursuing and completing a college degree quite different and more difficult than many realize. In this section, we take a close look at some of the challenges that these first-time college students face and what resources are out there to help them.
Challenges of First-Generation College Students
Many people experience difficulty with paying their bills. Perhaps it’s only for a month or two while they are in transition between jobs or are dealing with a sudden medical crisis. Or perhaps the problem is longer-lasting, and they are struggling every week just to make ends meet. Regardless of the reasons why, it’s important that everyone knows where to find the resources they need if they run low on cash and need some assistance.
Why It’s Important for First-Generation College Students to Succeed
Linda Banks-Santilli, who has written about being a former first-generation college student, is now professor. She highlights the challenges of first-generation students both from her own perspective and from her students’ experiences today. She writes that first-generation students may decide to go to college because it is a way of bringing honor to their families. She points out that 69% of first-generation learners see college as a way to meet the requirements for their preferred profession as well as to help their families financially. For comparison, only 39% of continuing-generation students picture their prospective degree in this light.
- Many first-generation degree-seekers see college as an opportunity toward better careers with upward mobility and higher earning potential. In this way, degree-holders can have an opportunity to break cycles of poverty that may have been part of their family’s history.
- Additionally, a degree and a successful career may position graduates to make contributions to their communities and help others pursue college-level studies.
- A successful college experience as a first-generation student can also help them develop a newfound sense of independence and individual self-worth.
How First-Generation College Students Can Ensure Their Own Success
Earning a college degree is hard to work for just about everyone who steps foot on a campus. Your success in college is, in part, related to your access to resources and what you do with them, as well as how prepared you are to take on college-level studies. Here are some things to keep in mind to give yourself the best chance for success in your program.
5 Traits of a Successful First-Gen College Student
As we’ve seen from the information above, the experience of first-generation college students can be more trying and difficult than other college-level learners. There are both physical and mental preparations and precautions you can take to ensure that you are giving yourself a chance to do your best school work, acclimate to college life, and practice self-care.
Preparedness ahead of time
Saying “I’ll figure it out when I get there” is not the best approach to starting your college experience. Do your best to take advantage of online resources and talk with advisors and other students before you begin school. Consider the links at the end of this guide for some good online information and starting points.
Sharpen relevant skills in advance
While it is important to enjoy any leisure time you may have before entering school, you will find it helpful to engage in some writing and reading activities before you head to school. It can also be helpful to exercise these basic skills during summer semesters if you have time off.
It is essential for all college students to be organized. Consider keeping a hard copy planner with you to ensure that you keep track of all of your academic deadlines, appointments, and social obligations. Digital planners can also be useful but be sure to save and back-up all of your data regularly.
A good work-life balance
It is easy to get burned out in school, so it is important that you balance leisure time and relaxation with your academic work.
Being responsible with time and energy
In order to get the most out of your academic experience, you need to get enough rest, give yourself enough time to complete assignments, and are otherwise responsible outside of the classroom. It can certainly be necessary to spend late nights studying while you’re in school, but sleep is one of the most essential things for a healthy mind and body.
Checklist and Timeline for First-Generation College Students
Keeping track of everything you need to do to prepare for college, as well as the essentials for when you arrive, is no small task. Consider the following timeline as a guide. Your own timeline may end up looking quite different than this, but this illustrates a general flow of events and a checklist to help you keep track of essential components of the process.
How Colleges Support First-Generation Students
With a recent increase in awareness of the needs of first-generation students, many colleges and universities today are taking extra steps to ensure these students get the support they need to succeed. In this section, we take a look at some of the characteristics of those schools that go the extra mile to support first-generation learners.
Involve the family
Schools with workshops that educate parents and guardians of first-generation students, for example, show that they want this kind of support to be a team effort.
Provide ways for first-generation students to connect with other students and programs
First-generation student-friendly schools provide easy access to a variety of resources, such as mentorship programs with older students.
Presence in high schools
It is important that first-generation students understand that there are options out there for them. Colleges and universities that invest in reaching out to prospective college students at the high school level shows great initiative.
Summer bridge programs
These programs are designed to help students acclimate to college life by giving them an opportunity to meet faculty members, learn more about support services at the school, and interact with other first-generation students.
Some schools go the extra mile by including orientation programs, workshops, or meetings that cater to the needs of first-generation students.
Designated school employees or office
Be on the lookout for schools that have stand-alone programs or branches of existing offices, such as an office of multicultural learning and diversity, that provide special services for first-generation learners.
Explicit written support, online and hardcopy materials
Keep an eye out for schools that are vocal about their support for first-generation students, and make these special resources known in-person, in school literature and on their website.
Some schools offer on-campus housing options that allow new students with the same academic goals, backgrounds, or interests to live in the same residence halls.
Field- or major-specific groups for underrepresented students
Colleges and universities may offer academic achievement and mentorship services that benefit underrepresented students in specific fields. These groups can include academic support, mentorship, in advising opportunities.
First-generation-friendly schools likely have at least one scholarship program that’s reserved for this demographic.
School Spotlights: 5 Schools Focusing on First-Generation Students
The office of undergraduate admissions features a first-generation students resources page. The site includes over a dozen links to the school’s mentorship services, student life options, community resources, and academic achievement initiatives.
Provided by the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, the university features a variety of first-generation student support services, including campus outreach programs, a dedicated student group for first-generation students, and its Upward Bound program for low-income and first-generation learners.
Brown operates an Undocumented, First-Generation College, and Low-Income Student Center. The center offers programs and services, including the class dissonance series, which increases the visibility of students of working class backgrounds and fosters community building. It also offers a year-long community enrichment program for first-generation college and low-income students.
CUA provides a variety of on-campus and off-campus resources. First-generation students can take advantage of group therapy and individual therapy sessions, disability and support services, and student organizations. Student membership groups on campus include a chapter of a nonprofit organization that sponsors women’s education in low-income areas, first-year experience groups, and freshman retreat programs.
Kenyon’s internal resources and programs for first-generation learners include pre-orientation summer meetings for underrepresented students, annual dinners for faculty and staff and first-generation students, and a recognition ceremony for these students’ achievements throughout the academic year.
Scholarships for First-Generation College Students
This achievement-based award provides financial, academic, and professional support for first-generation students who want to study abroad.
Undergraduate students residing in Florida can apply for this need-based award. Designated for first-generation students, your school determines the application procedures, deadlines, and award amount.
Established in 2005, this first-generation student award is for learner’s residing in Maryland. Applicants should be a junior or senior in high school and interested in pursuing a degree in the medical field.
Reserved for first-generation students in California, this program offers financial aid, academic and test preparation, career guidance in alumni support, and other support services throughout the duration of the receipt’s four-year degree program.
Current or aspiring college students can apply, provided they are first-generation learners and interested in pursuing careers that affect positive change for social justice.
This award is for students planning on attending a historically black college, have financial need, and are first-generation students.
Reserved for first-generation college students majoring in music, dance, or theater, this award requires applicants to possess a 2.5 or higher GPA and participate in a live audition/interview.
First-generation learners from underrepresented groups who need financial assistance can apply. Applicants should plan on pursuing a full-time undergraduate degree majoring in one of several concentrations, including architecture, math, science, transportation management, environmental design, psychology, or Spanish.
Reserved for students whose parents, grandparents, and siblings did not attend college, this award is for Florida residents applying to four-year public universities in the state.
This award is for women who are foreign students, first-generation Americans, or immigrants who are first-generation college degree-seekers.
Expert Interview: Insight for First-Generation College Students
Arelis Benítez is a practical theologian and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University. She is a first-generation daughter of Mexican immigrant parents and a recipient of the Posse Foundation scholarship which facilitated her entrance to academic education.
Resources and Tools for First-Generation College Students
Center for First-Generation Student SuccessThis organization strives to support students of this demographic through various programs and services, research and policies, and engagement initiatives.
College Advising CorpsThis organization focuses on helping first-generation college students, low-income students, and underrepresented high school learners with the college financial aid, enrollment, and admissions processes.
College Board BlogThis blog features a variety of current and short articles on college life, academic preparedness, acclimating to college life, standardized test scores, and more.
Collegiate Parent TimelineHere is the Collegiate Parent’s take on the most beneficial planning timeline for prospective college students in high school.
FirstInTheFamily.orgProspective first-generation college students can take advantage of a variety of useful resources on the site, including planning checklist, general tips, resources, and inspirational stories.
I’mFirst.orgThis organization highlights the personal stories of first-generation college students and provides a variety of supporting online resources.
Nine Tips for First-Generation College Students in Their First SemesterProvided by the College of St. Scholastica, this list offers some quick, actionable advice.
Psychology TodayThis is another short reference guide with 22 tips for first-year college students.