This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
My professor, in a bit of shock, sat across from me as coffee-slurping young adults shuffled by. “I would have never guessed you were a first generation college student,” he said, “you just don’t seem like one.”
Until that day, I had never considered myself a first-gen student either. But as I thought about that title and its implications some more, I realized that being a first generation college student gave me some pretty steep advantages over second or third generation students:
1. I have a go-getter attitude
My older brother and I are the first in our family to go to college. To us, there seems to be no limit to what we can achieve. Unlike students who come from a heritage of college graduates, I don’t feel the pressure to major in a particular field or land a certain job. I am the trailblazer; I can design my own future. Last spring, my brother was contemplating getting his masters, and he decided, “Why not? I have already come this far.”
2. I have a deep appreciation for learning
My peers see college as something they are entitled to, or a chore, a list of classes to be checked off so they can get on with their life. But throughout my first year in college, I couldn’t help but think – and this may sound cheesy – that I was participating in something magical, that the wrinkled professors and dusty textbooks had secrets to share. At home, my family had never been interested in talking about politics or classic literature, but in my dorm, conversation about every discipline flowed and intertwined, adding to the higher learning experience that I have come to love.
3. I know how to work hard
While my friends were watching the finale of their favorite Netflix shows, I was clocking in at the local eatery. My coworkers complained about flipping burgers or scrubbing the dishes, but I didn’t mind. I grew up watching my parents run their own business. My father’s calloused hands tell a story of hard work and my mom understands the meaning of sacrifice. At the age of 12, I was already helping out at the family business and by 14 I was driving a tractor on long summer days. Dealing with angry customers and clogged ketchup bottles seemed like a small price to pay for education.
4. I am not afraid to ask for help
When I first stepped on my college campus, I didn’t know what office hours were or how to schedule classes. I thought that I had to carry around all my textbooks and I didn’t know the difference between a doctor and a professor. I figured all the first year students were just as confused as I was, but then I began to talk to them. One student’s grandfather helped her make a four-year plan to complete all her classes; another student discussed topics from our philosophy class with his mother. It’s not that my parents weren’t willing to help – college life just wasn’t their area of expertise. I found myself unashamedly asking my professors to re-explain difficult concepts and I picked upperclassmen’s brains for scheduling advice. Many people were willing to help me and I became more confident that my questions deserved an answer.
Colleges often see first generation college students as a group that needs help navigating university life. After all, they reason, our parents didn’t attend college so we must not know how to dress for an interview or fill out a FAFSA form. Sometimes they are right. But as I have found out, first generation students can bring an independent attitude and raw enthusiasm that other students just don’t.