3 Challenges as a First-Generation Student and How I Overcame Them

Featured Illustration: Leonardo Santamaria

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A first-generation student is best described as someone whose parents did not attend college, therefore making the student the first one in the family to do so.

My experience being first-generation has brought many challenges. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until my junior year at California State University, Bakersfield, that I gained the confidence to learn more about the resources I had available as well as making new friends. Not only am I first-generation, but I’m also a returning student. Like many of my peers, I’ve had financial hardships that prevented me from continuing school. Now as a senior, I try to help those who need guidance whether they are returning from school or simply have questions. I often wish that I had an older sibling to guide me through the college process, but now looking back I realize I can be that person who guides others. Even though my college experience has been far from perfect and fun, I have learned to trust the process and take it one step at a time (with help from others as well, of course).

Paying for college

Financial challenges were the primary reasons for not attending, or in my case, finishing college on time (four years plan). I dropped out of school several times for many different reasons ranging from not having money to obtaining a job and paying my own tuition, then having to decide between my work and school. As the oldest child in the family, I had to financially contribute, and I often felt like attending college took a lot of my time. I often said to myself, “I could be working right now and earning money.” I prioritized obtaining a paycheck over my academic advancement. I decided that I would compromise and attend school part-time while working my job part-time as well. Scholarships were a big financial help — I applied to several while I was in my second year of college. Learning to budget also helped a lot because as a college student, there are times when I want to “treat myself” to things, but realistically speaking, I could not make major purchases because I allocated my savings towards my college education.

Lack of resources/disparities among the use of on-campus resources

Students often get discouraged to attend a higher education institution because they don’t have the guidance needed or because they do not qualify for them (maybe those resources do not exist in some cases). I started doing my own research on my student portal while in community college and I realized that a lot of financial and other resources were not as advertised in school. I believe that if schools planned accordingly for this, they would have a greater outcome and the resources would be put to use. I highly encourage students to do some research on the resources available to them or to discuss with their professors in college. Many of the resources I obtained were due to my connections with professors. I found that sometimes my community college counselors did not help me as much as my professors. Therefore, it’s important to maintain good standing in classes. The difficult part is transitioning from high school to college; nonetheless, whether you’re a first-generation or not, I believe that the first year can be used as a learning year.

Self-doubt and imposter syndrome

Many of my first-generation peers also deal with self-doubt and it wasn’t apparent until we started discussing it — this is often mixed in with social media, where people rarely speak about their failures. I often have to remind myself that failures are okay, and that success is not linear. During the end of my sophomore year in college and the beginning of junior year, I started to question if I had truly accomplished all of my success. I felt like I was an imposter and that I truly was not good enough. Even though I haven’t completely gotten rid of my imposter syndrome, I do take steps in the direction of improving what I can and acknowledging my accomplishments. The more I examined others, the more I realized that we are all slightly figuring it out as we go. In addition to not having anyone in my family to guide me, I doubted myself. Nonetheless, being open about my struggles and being involved in different organizations on campus allowed me to see things from a different perspective. I don’t let my failures define who I am, but I do learn from them and when it comes to success, I try to celebrate the small wins.

If you’re a first-generation student do seek out the resources, talk to your professors, and discuss with your peers who may be in a similar situation (this will help very much).