Some Thoughts From a First-Generation College Student

“March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path.” ~Khalil Gibran

Attending college has become more of a necessity than a luxury despite the increasing cost of attending college.  Many large corporations require at least a bachelor’s degree for entry-level jobs.  However, many high school students question if they are “good” enough to attend or “college material” because they are often the first members of their families to attend college and as a result hidden physical and mental barriers exist when making this choice.

As with anyone, many things make up my identity.  I am an African American female from a rural town.  I literally grew up on a farm located on a dirt road in a small community.  I am also a first-generation college student and embrace this aspect of my identity proudly.  This identity trait is shared with many and we all have different stories, different plights, and outcomes.  However, we all share some of the same difficulties when choosing to attend college.  My first year as a small town girl at a research one, predominantly white institution was very difficult for many reasons.  Firstly, adjusting to college culture was a challenge.  I went from attending a school of approximately 250 students (9-12) to over 16,000 students.  However, this was not the daunting aspect of this experience, it was the financial constraints I was placed under.  As a student from a low-income household, I was left to support myself financially.  Luckily, I did have scholarships and grants but had to quickly learn how to be self-reliant.  Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on time each year to ensure the maximum aid was important.  I did not know that dates mattered until I missed the deadline the first year and spoke with a financial aid counselor at the school and she explained it all to me.  However, financial aid was not enough, so I worked two to three jobs on campus while taking a full course load each semester.  So, while my roommates received checks from their parents monthly to pay for food and supplies, I was working nearly 20 hours a week. However, they were very supportive and offered rides and helped whenever they could.

Another constraint was not being able to see my family.  I decided to attend school approximately four hours from home and did not have a car.  It was difficult for my family members to take time off from work to visit me, so I often felt alone and different from the others because I was always trying to make ends meet.  I probably could have made smarter decisions financially, but did not have much guidance and just focused on surviving.  Financial and social constraints caused depression and resentment.

However, despite all that I went through I am stronger as a result and have a passion for encouraging students like me through the process in hopes they don’t give up or make the mistakes I made.   I feel more programs are needed to actively assist first-generation college students through many steps of the process:

  1. Creating a college-bound culture as early as middle school
  2. Educating parents about college culture, financial options, and completing paperwork prior to the student graduating
  3. Providing all first-generation college students with either an adult mentor or peer-mentor in high school and at least the first year of college
  4. Encourage first-generation college students to join a support group during their first year of college
  5. Encourage first-generation college students to attend schools that have support programs just for them that will aid them in answering questions, finding help and building a support system

Many colleges and universities are taking strides in ensuring first-generation college students are successful.  However, we all must be vigilant as in 2010, USA Today reported that 25 percent of low-income first-generation college students drop out of school within their first year and 89 percent quit before earning a degree within six years (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2010-03-30-FirstGenDorm30_ST_N.htm ).

Unlike many, I made it through the struggle and I’m currently a doctoral student in a top-ranked program.  However, I am the minority and I hope through advocacy and leadership I can have an impact on this population to ensure more like me are able to pursue their dreams through education.

Learn more about the plights of first-generation college students by viewing videos created by “First in the Family: Your College Years” :

http://www.firstinthefamily.org/collegeyears/soundslides/AcademicCultureShock/index.html

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