How To: Support First Generation College Students

The biggest reasons I thought I couldn’t go to college was because my family didn’t have the money for it and I didn’t think I was “college material”. I assumed you already had to know everything before you even went to college. I had to build my own support system because I had no idea what I was doing. There are many ways we can support first generation college students. Below you will find just a few!

After high school graduation, a breaking point came when my part-time waitressing job became my full time job. Former classmates, friends, their parents, and previous teachers would check in on what I was up to. It always made me feel disappointed telling them I was still a waitress. It made me realize that it wasn’t what I wanted for the rest of my life. This really motivated me to make college application deadlines the following school year. I also took the time to explore what I wanted to study. After a lot of reflection and volunteer work, I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian (even though this goal eventually changed).

I visited a few campuses to look at their programs for veterinary studies, but only Manor College had a program dedicated to pre-veterinary science. I attended their open house and that was the first place I found the support I needed. The campus was small and the staff was caring. As a first generation college student, I believe it’s important to find a campus that can give you a personalized education. This doesn’t mean you won’t succeed at a bigger university, but it might be more difficult to get the one-on-one time you need. This is true for any new college student, but first-generation college students have specific situations in which they can’t turn to their parents for help. For example, first generation college students often need help figuring out FAFSA or student loans.

This brings up an impactful way we can support first-generation college students: providing school-run trips to visit college campuses. Even though a student may not be considering that specific school, the act of stepping foot on a college campus gives these students a new perspective. The first time I visited a college campus, it changed my life. It was the first time I could truly see myself attending college. Walking down the halls and looking into the classrooms, visiting the dorms, and seeing the dining halls suddenly made my goals real for me. When you fall in love with a campus that is right for you, it can really motivate you to work hard. It makes you want to be a part of university life.

Another struggle in finding support when you’re the first in your family to go to college is that sometimes parents don’t know how to help you toward that goal. Any parent wants their child to earn a degree and succeed in life. However, like in the case with my parents, they worked labor intensive jobs and, at times, second jobs. My parents didn’t always have the time to make sure I was investing in college preparation. It would be beneficial for schools to host workshops for parents where they can learn how to help motivate and support their high schoolers through the intensive process of applying and preparing for college. I had an entire year after high school to prepare before going to college, but not everyone wants to wait that long.

Lastly, the biggest obstacle for many students that don’t go to college is finding the money for it. First generation college students typically come from low to middle class households. When I was in high school I wasn’t aware of all the scholarships available to me. I was under the impression that you needed to have a perfect GPA in order to win any scholarships. I didn’t realize there were even scholarships where financial need was one of the biggest considerations for winning, like the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. For a student whose parents have never gone to college due to financial burdens, it’s crucial to be reminded that there are options out there. High schools and universities should help ease this burden by providing students with lists of scholarships at their disposal. Workshops on how students can find scholarships and how to apply for student loans would be extremely beneficial. Every year thousands of dollars in scholarship money goes unused because students weren’t aware it was out there.

It’s time we start giving students the tools they need to succeed because we don’t all have families that have already paved the way.

– Isla M.