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Issue 17 Out Now

The Reality of Being A First-Generation College Student

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Graduating from college is no easy feat. It is challenging academically, mentally, emotionally, and financially.

Therefore, having a familial support system that has graduated from college offers a huge advantage and can make a significant difference in the outcome of such a challenging endeavor.

However, for first-generation college students or those whose families lack a college-going tradition, obtaining a college degree can seem like an uphill battle.

According to the First Generation Foundation, students represent half of the US college population.

And in this article, I will be sharing the challenges that tend to accompany being a first-generation college student, along with tips from first-generation college graduates on how they overcame these challenges.

Limited Emotional, Mental, Financial Support/Guidance

Often for a first-generation college student, familial support and guidance are limited. Emotional and mental support is often limited because parents can not relate to the stress and exhaustion students feel during the college experience and tend to be less accommodating or understanding. This lack of empathy can sometimes translate into them making little to no effort to make things easier, often contributing to first gens stress.

Ex. Jada lives with her parents to save money. She sometimes gets a list of chores a couple of times a week to finish immediately. She usually does them. However, they become particularly frustrating amid finals week.

Ex. Titan’s dad constantly yells, fusses, complains about the dishes, his siblings, laundry every day before and after school, further contributing to his stress. It is particularly frustrating on presentation days or when he has a lot of work to do.

Even the most loving family can be a source of frustration due to their lack of empathy and compassion. Here is what our first-generation graduate recommends.


Talk to your family and let them know they are contributing to your stress. Your family loves you and wants the best for you. They might not be aware that they are contributing to your stress and are willing to help.

However, sometimes that is not quite the case, and it is necessary to recognize your family’s limitations and work around them. Maybe rethink living with your parents. You might also reserve being at home for resting and school work for other locations like coffee shops or libraries. Also, consider speaking to your school’s financial aid department. Many times considerable resources are available for first-generation college students that go unclaimed.

Typically Low Income

Because first-generation students typically come from low-income backgrounds, it is not uncommon for first-gens to work several jobs to support themselves. Juggling attending classes, school work, studying, preparing for tests, and work can be a lot to handle and often result in academic suffering.

Ex. Jayla is studying cybersecurity for 15 hours a week. She also works full-time in retail to pay for school and live on campus. Jayla is tired most days and often falls asleep in class. Although she does her best, she is just barely passing her classes. She knows she can do much better.


Something has got to give. It might be a good idea to reduce some of your classes or consider switching to part-time. School is not a race. You can take your time. There is also work-study where you can earn money and dedicate time to your studies at the same time.

More Prone to Overwhelming Schedule/ Exhaustion/ Burnout

An overwhelming schedule, exhaustion, and burnout are also more likely as a first-generation college student. School and work leave less room for taking care of yourself, and with little to no guidance, it is not always apparent to young students that it is necessary to do so. Students will work and push themselves constantly because that’s what they know. However, making sure you take breaks is a vital part of ensuring your success. A packed schedule leaves little room to breathe, take care of yourself, socialize, participate in extracurricular activities, network, and other activities to boost your chances of success.

Ex. Chance works two jobs and has done so during his entire school career. He feels tired, lost, and unmotivated constantly. With no free time, he often neglects himself.


If you find you can not scale back on work due to your obligations, and you can not scale back on school due to academic requirements, all that is left is for you to learn the art of time management. You will find if you do not take the time to get ahold of time, time will always escape you.

List everything out. Everything seems worse in our heads, but when you write them out, it is less overwhelming. Prioritize what is urgent and schedule time frames for you to get them done. Time does not direct you. However, it will not happen on its own.

As a first-generation college student, you are laying the foundation for a new tradition in your family which comes with its set of challenges. It is your hand. Rather than submitting to the current, you are choosing to swim against it. Being a first-generation college student makes an intrinsically challenging endeavor even more so. However, it also makes success that much more rewarding. And although it is an accomplishment you deserve to carry with great pride, the beauty truly lies in the impact it has on those around you. It sparks hope that if you can do it, perhaps they can too, and allows you the opportunity to honor your experience with empathy and compassion and allow those that follow to avoid building from scratch but instead stand on your shoulders.


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