This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
I was the first in my family to attend college. My parents never had the opportunity, but made sure that I did. They couldn’t support me financially, but my mother in particular provided me with ample social and emotional support.
In addition to having very little concept of college or how to apply, I was afraid to leave my family, which had been a source of comfort throughout my life. I applied to one college only: the one that offered me a scholarship and that my English teacher recommended. As I reflect on my experiences of heading off to college and as a college student, I’m now aware of all of the things that I wasn’t aware of at the time.
Struggling Through and Gaining Strength
I had no extra money and had no idea where to garner the funds for daily living expenses. However, I was able to secure a work-study job after a few weeks and this helped me pay for the essentials.
I was hungry compared to the other students because I had a limited meal plan: only two meals a day. I remember eating a huge bowl of cereal in the morning and then trying to eat the biggest dinner I could at night so that I wouldn’t be hungry. I was grateful for the salad bar and all-you-can-eat options.
I ran into trouble near the end of my first year as my parents couldn’t afford the required parental tuition contribution of $500 and my school expenses ended up being more than were predicted. Even with a summer job, I couldn’t pay my tuition bill in time to register for the following year’s classes. I was afraid that I’d be asked to leave and stressed out; I could hardly concentrate on my academics. If it had not been for a nice man in the business office who let me register, violating the school’s policies, I would not have been able to stay in college. I ran into this situation every year and in the end had to take out loans in graduate school so that I could pay off my undergraduate bills.
No one in my family ever been on a plane or traveled more than 200 miles from my hometown. When other students went on spring break or studied abroad, I stayed on campus by myself; I did not have the money to do anything but attend college. I missed out on the diversity of opportunities that many college students experience.
Although struggling through college was difficult, it did make me a hard worker, resourceful and creative, and it prepared me for the problem-solving that is needed later in life. It also taught me to use the (non-monetary) resources that were available to me. Sometimes, I think about what I could have learned in college if I had known more and had parents that had helped me navigate the college experience, or at least exposed me to it.
Providing a Different Experience for My Daughter
My daughter’s experience will be fundamentally different from my own. Not only has my daughter grown up in a neighborhood adjacent to an Ivy League university, but she has visited countless colleges and universities with me as I’ve conducted research. My college education has given me many opportunities: I have a well-paying job, I can take vacations, I can travel abroad and I have a circle of friends from all backgrounds. All of these opportunities are also experienced by my daughter. She has a rich and fulfilling intellectual life at 14 years of age.
Unlike me, my daughter—the product of two well-educated parents— already understands college. She sees it as a natural progression in life, a given. She knows she has to work hard, but is not afraid of the possibility of not going to college. Instead, she is concerned about where she might be accepted and what she will do in the future as a career. If she wants to participate in spring break or study abroad, all she needs to do is ask her parents to support her. If her college tells her that she owes more money, she can call home and ask us to pay the bill. My daughter will not feel most of the stress that I felt as a student.
Interestingly, I prefer that my daughter struggle a bit as I think it’s good for students. I want her to have a campus job and to take some responsibility for paying for her education. Throughout her life, I have purposely made sure that she has not been given everything as I think this is a mistake that many parents make.
Easing the Struggles of First-generations Students
Of course, my daughter will never go through the struggles that most first-generation students experience. In order to ease these struggles and further the success of these students, many of whom are also low-income, colleges and universities need to anticipate the needs and roadblocks that first-generation students face. These needs include funding (especially after the first year), safety nets to fall back on when family resources are not available and awareness of college resources such as counseling, writing centers and tutoring. For me, a special orientation for first-generation students would have helped immensely and allowed me to ask the questions that can be embarrassing to ask in front of students with much more exposure to college. In addition, programs for the parents of first generation-students would also help as parents serve as sources of comfort for these students during the college experience.
In order to provide equity in the college experience, colleges and universities need to consider the perspectives and backgrounds of first-generation students. Much like my daughter, we all benefit from the positive experiences of first-generation college students.