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High School

Navigating College as a First-Generation Student

Growing up, I never thought I was any different than my peers when it came to my education. I went to public school, worked hard, and I knew that once I graduated, I was going to college. That was always the plan and I never questioned it. Once junior year hit, that’s when my parents and I really started looking into everything that college involves: figuring out what I wanted in a school, what I could afford, and what major I wanted to choose. This is around the time that I figured out that many of my friends that I had grown up with had an advantage over me that I had never considered: their parents and/or older siblings had attended college. They already knew what the process looked like, knew what to look for, knew all of the nuanced terms that only colleges use (FAFSA, FERPA, etc). Neither of my parents or my older brother attended college, so everything was completely brand new for me and my family. 

Luckily, my high school offered tons of college nights that allowed me and my family to learn about the college application process, about loans and scholarships, and about what we should be looking for when touring schools. Attending college tours was extremely eye-opening and exciting, as I had never been on a college campus besides for a chorus concert here and there and my local community college. After the first few tours, we started realizing that it was hard to remember all of the information that we were being given and that we were mixing up information from all of the schools we had seen. We began writing down what we learned as soon as we got into the car after the tours so that I could compare all of them later on when I was trying to make the biggest decision I had made in my life thus far. It took a lot of work, asking a lot of questions, and countless nights browsing the CollegeBoard College Search to be able to pick the best college for me. I decided on a school and it felt like the uphill battle was finally over.



Once I began college at Rowan, I received an email from a group called “Flying First”. It was a group that was created to support and encourage students who were first-generation college students. I had never heard that term before, but once I attended a meeting or two, it all clicked. I wasn’t alone or an anomaly, I was part of a group that had gone through all of the same struggles that I had when applying and looking at colleges. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what a Registrar office was (quite honestly, I still get confused by it) and I wasn’t the only one who was consumed with fear when looking at prices of schools, especially those out of state. Hearing from other students and even being a part of a study on first-generation students made me extremely thankful for the support group I had in my family and friends, as there are many out there who have to navigate everything that I went through alone. 

I feel like my life has come full circle, as I now work as a tour guide for my college, giving prospective students their first glimpse at everything Rowan has to offer. I try to tell all of my groups that no question is a bad question and that they should never be embarrassed to ask me anything about Rowan, colleges, or the process of finding a school in general. I let them know that I am a first-generation student and that I went through everything that they went through- if I could make it, anyone can. I’m proud of the fact that I am the first one to be getting a college education in my family and try each and every day to make everyone around me proud. If I could make even one family process easier or give them advice that I needed to hear when I was in their shoes, I gladly will. If you are a first-generation student or just a college student in general, I commend you for everything you are doing- whether you’re just starting the college process or you are graduating in the Spring, nothing about the higher education system is easy. Just take it one day at a time, and never be afraid to ask for help!

Tyra Gwalthney is a Junior Dual Major in Law and Justice and Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management in the Honors Concentration. Alongside HerCampus- and being a HerCampus Trendsetter- she also is the Vice President of the Animal Advocacy Club, and enjoys volunteering as often as she can. She loves dogs, summer, the beach, and anything involving chocolate. Want to chat? Email: gwalthnet0@students.rowan.edu 
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