What It Really Feels Like to Be a First Generation College Student

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

By Layton Harvey

I’m a first generation college student. This means neither my parents nor grandparents went to a university or college. Most people of collegiate age have at least someone in their who got their degree, and so those students have people in their lives who push the concept of higher education.  Those students often grow up assuming they’ll head to college, taking that expectation for granted. It wasn’t like that for me. Don’t get me wrong—my parents are concerned about my grades. However, their concern doesn't go beyond making sure I'm not failing. But I've always been Type A, overachieving and an honor student, so when it came time to graduate I knew I wanted more than just a high school diploma.

If you’re reading this as a first generation student entering college or university, you’re pretty familiar with the struggles of this position. Other parents will have hounded their kids to apply for tutors, SAT study groups, campus tours and every scholarship and prep program available. As a first generation student you rely entirely on the help of teachers and guidance counselors. I remember having to be told exactly how majors and minors worked and how to read a course sequence, because as first generation students, we miss out on a lot of information other people think is obvious. On top of that you will have to try and re-explain all this information (that you barely understand) to your parents (who understand it even less). Good luck!

But all that hard work does pay off. I got my acceptance letter, and before I knew it, it was move in day. I’d read every single college packing list, every advice column and the entire school website to prepare, but I was still freaking out. I felt like I was missing crucial information. After putting stuff in my dorm and meeting my roommate, I remember trying to get my meal plan, frosh kit and student card, overwhelmed with everything I still had to do. I felt alone in my journey. Then, like it was the most important thing on the to do list, my mom wanted to organize my pantry. “It’s a cereal box and Kraft dinners, mom. Mooom, I can do it.” Take my advice though: just let her do it. Let her help you in any way she can, because even though you’re super stressed out, she’s having a really bad day too. However alone you may feel in trying to understand the college world, your parents are sharing that exact same clueless feeling with you.

Unfortunately, for me this was only the beginning of the misunderstandings many first generation students and their parents have to deal with. Four year later, I still have to tell my parents what program I am in. They don’t understand the courses, summer school or the anything about the honors and distinctions I’ve achieved. This is incredibly frustrating. I have a hard time because sometimes it seems like maybe they don’t care enough or maybe they like my sister more because she didn’t leave for university. The truth is they do care, and they want you to be happy but they can’t understand what you’re doing because they haven’t been in your shoes.

They might also not understand how expensive post-secondary education is. In my case, like many first generation students, my parents and I had no financial plan. I had to take out loans from the bank because government student loans were not an option. I’ve worked since the first day at school and this past school year I was working 40–60 hours a week on top of a full course load. This was incredibly stressful for me and definitely unhealthy. However, my parents brushed this stress off and didn’t see why I was complaining. I hate to say it, but a 9-5 job will feel like nothing after this.

Parental emotional support in university is vital to being happy and healthy during your studies, but I felt terrified constantly that I was disappointing them. With time, I got over this because I love in my education, I love my friends and I love the community I have made for myself. It will be the spaces you create for yourself that get you through these four years.

Your parents might not understand that you love this. They won’t understand why you stayed up all night for a Spanish exam that you failed anyway. Just maybe, you will be a little relieved when they don’t really care about your grades that much. I wanted to quit almost every week. I wondered what the point was or if it was worth it. I tried to hide my frustration when on the phone, I tried to explain my program for the fifth time. But at the end of the day, I know my mom loves me and she only wants the best for me. She knows this makes me happy, and I know she is proud.

Being a first generation student has been a challenge, but it’s a challenge I now recognize as a blessing. When I see how my friends need their parents to help them with everything, I’m grateful for the independence and resourcefulness I had to develop. I know pursuing future education will hold the same struggles, but I’ve learned how to make it work for me—and that I can tackle anything.

Editor's Note

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