First-generation college students, those whose parents did not earn a four-year degree, are decreasing in percentage according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Education. The report states that in 1980, 77 percent of high school parents did not have higher education. By 2007-2008, that number had dropped to 20 percent.
Despite this decrease in proportions, first-generation students reportedly made up one-third of enrolled college students in 2011-2012. The U.S. Department of Education reports that these students will face significant challenges in their pursuit of college education. They are at a greater risk of not completing college programs due to the fact they are working full time, have kids or they are less prepared academically.
As a first-generation college student myself, one of the biggest hurdles I had to face was the shift in my identity. The first quarter in college can make or break a student. It offers a chance for personal growth and an opportunity to build connections amongst peers and social groups. However, it can also lead the student to develop two identities — one for home, and the other for college.
In a journal case study by Linda Banks-Santilli, a first-generation college student by the name of Katelyn Bennis talked about her experiences at a university she was attending. During the school breaks, she would visit her family and during these visits she picked up on a change in herself since attending college.
“I feel like a different person here with all of the things that I’m accomplishing. I love seeing my parents, but they have no idea what it’s like here or what I do here” Bennis said. “They don’t ask questions, because they don’t know what questions to ask. It almost feels like a step back in a way.”
For the longest time, I felt like an imposter at college. Over the weeks that feeling subsided and I grew to greatly enjoy the experience; however, I quickly developed a need to prove myself on an academic level. I felt I had to work twice as hard to prove I was worthy of being there. As I am working to prove myself on an academic level, I can see the changes it brings in my personal life, influencing how I approach situations and interact with people. This is a positive change that my loved ones notice and comment on, providing emotional support. But this can further the feeling of being different.
Banks-Santilli further explored this in an article, where she talked in depth about the struggles first-generation college students go through. She says for these students, higher education comes at the price of leaving their families behind.
One of the first lessons I had to learn as a first-generation college student was asking for help. This did not come easily then and that hasn’t changed over the years. Coming from a low-income family, I have perceived asking for help as a sign of weakness in myself. In order to avoid the stigma and stereotypes that first-generation students can face, I felt I had to know everything and get everything right on the first try. By asking for help, I felt it was a reflection on myself and my work.
However, I do not have parents to turn to when I am confused about a financial aid form I have to fill out or a college application. This forced me to become independent and be more willing to reach out and ask for help when needed.
In part, this can lead to stress. Figuring out how to pay for an education can be foreign territory for first-generation students like myself. Colleges will talk about the low price a student will pay for tuition out of pocket. For students like myself, out of pocket tuition is a great area of stress, regardless of how low the projected out of pocket sum may be. Paying for college is a concern that I have to constantly think about, a burden I carry on my own.
While there is a lot of stress and concerns as a first-generation college students, this has proven to be a strength of mine rather than a weakness. It has given me the opportunity to experience college with a unique perspective.
According to an article by Inside Higher Ed, first-generation college students scored high in strong academic engagement and college commitment.
While this doesn’t reflect every student, it certainly gives me hope as a first-generation student.
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