A Mile in Their Shoes: Advice from Successful First-Generation Students

November 8 is the 3rd annual First-Generation Celebration Day, hosted by the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Center for First-Generation Student Success. The groups’ goal is to encourage “campus communities to better understand the systemic barriers plaguing higher education and the supports necessary for this important and resilient population to continue thriving.” With the ever-growing number of students who are first-generation, it is important to understand who they are, what motivations they have, and how to help them overcome unique obstacles they face. By focusing on these three things, we can help them optimize their success in identifying a school that is a good financial fit to maximize the opportunity of their financial success and ensure they are not part of the 3 million students dropping out of college each year for financial reasons. 

Who Are First Generation Students?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 1/3 of incoming college freshmen are first-generation students.  While the specific definition of first-generation students may vary, generally speaking, first-gen students are those whose parents did not attend college. More specific definitions may describe first-generation students as those who had a parent enroll but not graduate or students whose siblings are in college but have not yet graduated. There are several other nuanced definitions, leading to fluctuating numbers regarding the size of the first-gen student population.

The technicalities of the definition, however, are not what I want to discuss. Instead, the focus of this blog is two-fold. First, to provide advice and encouragement to anyone who identifies as a first-generation student. These students face an entirely different set of challenges—their parents have not done this before, and often face additional language barriers further complicating the college shopping process. First-generation students also stand out for the pride friends and families have for their higher education accomplishments.

Secondly, this blog is meant to provide a moment of pause for financial aid offices. As you read through these stories, how do they mirror the journeys of your own first-generation student populations? What can we do differently to make the path through financial aid easier? What would you need if you were in their shoes to be financially successful?  Additionally, take a moment and celebrate the success stories that are represented by those who provide advice, as each of these individuals was touched by an aid office in helping them navigate their journey to achieving the American Dream of improving the trajectory of their life through higher education. 

Information: Key to First-Gen Success

Schools, parents, and the students themselves are all driving toward one goal: success. This begins with a concentrated effort to ensure students have the best access to information—as well as plenty of support, encouragement, and insights from others to help them overcome any challenges they may face. The right support can give students the answers they need, drive completion, and ultimately, help them achieve overall success—including financial success.

I’ve gathered some of the best advice and encouragement for first generation students—directly from CampusLogic employees who are also first-generation students (and successful graduates). Read on for their advice.

Ashley Martinez, Arizona State University Graduate

Q: What advice do you wish someone had given you as you started out your first-gen higher education journey?

A: Ask questions! If there is a concept or term related to your education that you don’t understand, just ask. The more informed you are about your classes and financial aid, the better you can make decisions to set you up for success later. Let go of being too embarrassed to ask a stupid question.

Q: What or who kept you going on your higher education journey?

A: My two younger brothers—they’ve always looked up to me and I knew that my ability to succeed would directly impact their perception of college as a realistic possibility in their futures.

Q: What struggles do first-gen students have that you think tend to get overlooked?

A: Money management—as a first-generation college student coming from a low-income, single-parent household, I never really learned to save. It just wasn’t something that happened in my house when my mom was barely making ends meet. When I started college and got my first financial aid refund, I used it for the laptop that I would use through college. It was a necessary purchase, but I could have picked a less expensive model and saved some for expenses later in the semester—which would have been very helpful.  Even after college once I entered the workforce full-time, learning to manage my income and save money was a challenge having never seen it in action in my house growing up.

Q: How has higher education positively impacted your life?

A: Higher education has afforded me the opportunity to begin breaking the cycle of poverty in my family. I’ve managed to disrupt the pattern of struggling from paycheck to paycheck, but the impact goes beyond my own financial wellness. I’ve become the family expert in all things higher education—I get calls from siblings and cousins asking for help with applying for and attending college. I love getting those calls. It’s incredibly gratifying to help others through the journey that may change their lives.

Vince Vaughn, Utah State University Graduate & Florida State University Master's Graduate

Q: What advice do you wish someone had given you as you started out your first-gen higher education journey?

A: I have several responses to this question:

I wish someone had better educated me about majors, programs, and curriculum paths. I knew what a major was, but had little understanding of how to learn about each, what careers they led to, how to assess if I had any potential competence in those areas, and once I decided on a major, how to plan my schedule to make the most efficient progress in a major. As a result, I floundered my first year and a half and wound up taking classes I didn’t need, wasting money on tuition that didn’t benefit me.

I wish someone had told me about the possibility and value of entering into a trade or certificate program in my first year of college, so I could qualify for improved employment to help fund the rest of my college as I worked toward a bachelor’s degree.

I wish someone would have told me that attending a community college and then transferring to a university is a more affordable path to a bachelor’s degree.

Q: What went completely NOT according to plan for you, and how did you bounce back?

A: I ended up taking three times the amount of electives I needed because I had no idea how to focus or progress along an efficient curriculum path as outlined by a major. My first year my major was “Undecided” and therefore ended up blowing through a bunch of courses that sounded interesting but did nothing to help me progress.

Q: What or who kept you going on your higher education journey?

A: Seeing my parents struggle financially—in part because of their lack of education—was the main driver for me to keep going.

Q: What struggles do first-gen students have that you think tend to get overlooked?

A: I think the temptation to drop out is greater for first-gen students because generally they will have more financial pressures, they will have less familial pressure or expectations upon them to continue, and they have no parental career path to emulate, follow, or be influenced by. They are completely on their own to learn what their career path should be, and that can be overwhelming and directionless.

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for first-generation students?

A: Insist on receiving quality advising, whether that be an advisor from the college or from your high school or both. You may not know what you don’t know which makes it difficult to present your advisor with specific goals or questions in mind, but be open and honest about your lack of direction as to how to navigate the college system toward a potential career that could be a good fit for you. If the advisor is conscientious and responsible, he or she will listen to you and help you establish goals and identify your interests. Then they will help you develop a plan just for you that fits your interests. It may take some time, but you’ll get there. If, however, you get an advisor who isn’t helpful or doesn’t take the time with you to help you, then insist on a different advisor. If nobody in the advising office is helpful, then try and find a faculty member who is willing to coach or advise you.

Identify a professional mentor from the career you’re interested in and ask if you can meet with that person on a monthly or quarterly basis to gain vital real-world coaching toward your career.

Q: How has higher education positively impacted your life?

A: Every one of the jobs I’ve had throughout my career I would never have qualified for without my degrees. Sadly, I don’t think I learned much in college—except the skills of how to get things done, how to learn, and how to collaborate with others. Those are vital skills I’ve built upon and strengthened since leaving college, but I learned the basics of those in college purely from the desire to succeed and survive. But, the content and information, I don’t think I remember much of that at all.

Staci Matt, University of Richmond Graduate

Q: What advice do you wish someone had given you as you started out your first-gen higher education journey?

A: Keep applying for scholarships! I lost a lot of my scholarship funds at the end of my first year, which led to taking on more loans, and even increasing my course load each semester so I could graduate early. You’re responsible for your own financial future, so stay educated on your funding options and do what you can to get “free money”!

Q: What or who kept you going on your higher education journey?

A: When college got tough, it could be easy to think of people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out and were still successful. But you know who didn’t drop out? Almost every other big business founder. Most politicians. Amazing philanthropists. Scientists making huge discoveries. Thinking of how so many people I look up to had higher ed backgrounds was inspiring.

Q: How has higher education positively impacted your life?

A: I majored in Political Science and International Studies,  and am currently a Product Marketing Manager at a domestic company. The skills that I learned in college weren’t just for one career path,  and didn’t silo me into a specific position—they were wide-reaching and continue to provide me with opportunities. Without the competencies that I learned from getting my bachelor’s degree, or having a bachelor’s degree in general, I wouldn’t have been able get internships and jobs that allowed me to explore the career path that I now love. Even if you have a change of heart about your field of study, or take a few classes you don’t like, you can move forward! I’ve been able to translate experiences across fields to be successful, and I would definitely not have the career I have today without higher education.  

Brent Vermillion, Arizona State University Graduate

Q: What advice do you wish someone had given you as you started out your first-gen higher education journey?

A: I was the first in my immediate family to finish college. I knew that I had to go to college so that I could one day become an engineer, inventor, etc. So, for me it was never a question of if I would go to college; it was a question of figuring out how to pay for it—as it is for many students considering college. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of a Pell grant and discounted in-state tuition. These two things and a part-time job made college doable for me, since I had to fund my college education.

I am so thankful I got out of college with so little debt. It is easy to think, “I’ll pay for it later or someday,” but the truth is it is hard to set aside money especially when I was living on my own after college. It is very costly to buy everything in the beginning and even harder to not buy things and pay down the debt. Again, I am super thankful I had a good-paying job, I was marketable, was able to make ends meet, and pay down the debt quickly.

Q: What or who kept you going on your higher education journey?

A: I am thankful my mom was so supportive and encouraging from the time I was young. She always said go to college and get a good education so you can get a good-paying job. For whatever reason, I just always knew I would. Maybe it was my mom’s voice in my head, or maybe it was not having much money growing up, but picking a good-paying degree was the single best decision I made in my life.

Q: What struggles do first-gen students have that you think tend to get overlooked?

A: I found it difficult to stick with it and finish college. I wanted to get on with working, making money, and supporting myself. I was offered a good-paying full-time job in my field and was going to finish school a couple classes per semester. I enjoyed living on my own, but I did not like the thought of having to be in college for so many years. So I worked part-time again and went back to school full-time. My ego took a bit of a beating, but it was the right choice for me because I got through college and moved on.

Q: How has higher education positively impacted your life?

A: It is without a doubt difficult to go to college and have a part-time job, but it was worth it in the end because I got a degree that set me up for a good career. I was lucky because I wanted to be an engineer, and that happens to pay pretty well. From my perspective, it is very important to look at college as an investment in yourself, and it has to make sense to do so. For example, think about the cost of what college will cost you and how much more you will be able to make or how much more marketable you will be when you are done with it.

Emma Muriel, University of Arizona Graduate & Northern Arizona University Master's Graduate

Q: What advice do you wish someone had given you as you started out your first-gen higher education journey?

A: I wish that I would’ve had someone around to tell me to do more research on my selected career path and to help me “narrow the field.” When you are barely entering college and do not have the appropriate guidance, it is sometimes daunting to choose a major and stick to it. I had so many options available to me that I spent a lot of time worrying about if my choice of major was “the right one.” I think that the “you know when you know” feeling that people generally ascribe to wedding dresses and soulmates can also be ascribed to college majors. Choosing a path is difficult, yet when you find your calling, everything will fall into place. It’s simply about surrounding yourself with the people who will empower you to believe in your path.

Q: What went completely NOT according to plan for you, and how did you bounce back?

A: I thought my entire adolescent life that I was going to major in marketing, or some other area of business. Initially for my first and second years in college, I did. I was waist deep in my pre-business program when I realized that I had no passion or creative interest in the things I was learning. I had cajoled myself into completing a program I wasn’t happy with. I decided to bounce back by breaking from the path I was on, doing extensive research about other majors that were closely aligned, yet not under the same college, and found the perfect one. After I changed my major and program, I began to love school again. I enjoyed going to class, I was succeeding as a student, and I was passionate about what I was learning. Although it took me some time to realize, I eventually was honest with myself and I made the right decision.

Q: What or who kept you going on your higher education journey?

A: Finding community in college is crucial, particularly when you are a minority, first-generation student. At first, I clung to my high school friends who were attending the same university, but very quickly realized that we were all on different paths in our education. I needed a community to support, uplift, and keep me on track academically. I searched and found just that in my sorority. Although Greek organizations can have a negative stigma, there are so many cultural and academic based sororities and fraternities, as well as student organizations and clubs, that aid students in their academic and professional success. Finding a culturally based, academic sorority on campus helped me to gain the support of a closely-knit community at a very large state school. I no longer felt alone on campus, and that sense of family and support helped me stay on track and motivated throughout my time in school.

Q: What struggles do first-gen students have that you think tend to get overlooked?

A: For a first-generation student, it is more than just being accepted, enrolling, and going to class. A first-generation student must tackle so many other obstacles from paying for tuition to explaining what they are going through to their parents and family. For family members who have never gone to college, it can be difficult to understand their student’s needs, wants, and frustrations. There can sometimes be guilt that takes hold of a student because they are ahead of where their parents were at their age and are in the process of changing their own identity as a person. As the first person to attend college in their family, it can sometimes translate to selfishness and lead to low self-esteem for the student. Because the student is in college and experiencing many things for the first time, that their family may be unable to help with, the student must adapt and learn on their own while also trying to maintain the expectations put on them. The guilt can lead to the student feeling an immense amount of pressure to support their family, maintain familial relationships, and also their personal identity as a student. Being involved in so many different spheres and social groups is stressful and makes managing expectations and responsibilities a difficult task.

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for first-generation students?

A: Keep going. When things seem worse, you must always find ways to keep going. Take It all one day at a time and never let anyone or anything get you off track, even your family. Sometimes those closest to us cannot understand our struggles, but in the end, once the goal is met, they will. Find your community of support and hold on to them.

Q: How has higher education positively impacted your life?

A: Higher education has given me the opportunity to pursue a professional career, develop personally, and achieve my dreams. Although I am just starting off in my career, I already have endless opportunity to achieve more. My support system helped me get through both my bachelor’s and master’s programs, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to do so. I hope to continue to achieve academically and professionally as I continue on this path. Without my education, I do not know if I would have been able to reach the same success I have now.

About the Author

Amy Glynn, VP Student Financial Success

Amy Glynn joined CampusLogic in 2013, focused on helping colleges and universities deliver student financial success through automation, advising, and analytics. Ever-focused on improving staff efficiency and the student experience, Amy has spent more than a decade optimizing the financial aid process while ensuring institutions maintained compliance with Federal Title IV regulations. A sought-after national-stage speaker, Amy champions ideas that can help turn the tide for the nearly 3 million students who drop out of higher education every year for reasons related to finances. Student financial success has become a strategic imperative for all higher education institutions and Amy often lends her voice to policy discussions focused on improving accessibility, driving informed borrowing, and increasing completion. Amy earned her Master of Science in Higher Education from Walden University.

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