Tips for First-Generation College Students
By Heather Clarke
Going to college is a time of excitement and happiness. It doesn’t matter if you’re staying close to home or going to school far away, getting a college education is a huge step and goal, and you should feel proud of yourself. But it’s also understandable if you feel overwhelmed or nervous about going.
If you’re the first one in your family to go to college—also called a first-generation college student—you might not have the same support as your friends who have parents that went to college, and your caregivers may not be able to offer you much advice on the process. But you’re definitely not alone.
In 2016, about 1 in 3 undergraduates in a bachelor’s degree program were first-generation college students. Research suggests that first-gen college students often have a harder time going to college and getting a degree, but with the right information and support, it’s possible to not only graduate but also thrive in school. As a first-gen low income college student myself and an adjunct lecturer and field mentor to undergraduate and graduate students I want to equip you to have all the support and opportunities possible to feel comfortable and connected and thrive on campus.
Here are my top tips for first-generation college students.
Explore Financial Aid Options
Often one of the hardest hurdles for first-gen students is being able to understand and finance the cost of college. For first-generation, low-income students, or FGLI students, this is harder because you don’t have parents who can help you pay for college or help with student loan application forms.
It’s challenging to have to finance college without any parental support, but the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid page is full of resources for students, including how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, apply for student loans, and apply for Federal Pell Grants. Pell Grants are for undergraduate students who “display exceptional financial need,” and the grants don’t have to be paid back. Scroll through the website to find resources on financial aid, types of loans, work study, and more.
Attend a Summer Bridge Program
Many colleges offer summer bridge programs to help prepare first-generation college students for the academics of college and life on campus. During this time incoming students can take classes, including English language arts, math, and study skills. In her autobiography, “Becoming,” former first lady Michelle Obama talks about the bridge program that she did the summer before she started her freshman year at Princeton University and how much it helped her as a first-gen college student.
Ask the colleges and universities you’re interested in—or the one you have decided on—whether they have a summer bridge program. If they don’t, ask whether they have any study skills courses or other preparatory courses you could take the summer before your first year, or whether they offer any events to welcome and connect first-gen or first-year students in the fall.
Use the Student Academic Help and Resource Center
You shouldn’t be embarrassed or afraid to reach out to your college campus academic help or tutoring center. Most campuses have centers where they offer free academic support. If you need help with writing a paper or studying for an exam, there are staff, and often graduate students doing their thesis or doctoral work there, who can help undergraduate students.
Say, for example, that you know you need to take a math class and math is hard for you. Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed; go get help at the tutoring or academic center right away. Remember, it’s free, and there’s no shame in getting help. That’s what the center is there for.
Take Advantage of Office Hours
Each professor, teaching assistant, and dean has office hours as part of their teaching and advising duties. I’m speaking from experience when I tell you that a professor would much rather you come to them with questions (big or little) right away than wait until you’re overwhelmed.
Don’t be afraid to make yourself known. I want my students to come to me with their questions about the syllabus and assignments, no matter how small. That’s what professors are there for.
Additionally, office hours are a great way for you to connect with your professor in a personal way. This is especially important in large lecture classes but even more critical for first-generation students who often don’t get access to the same mentoring opportunities as some of their peers.
Get Support for Your Learning Disability or Neurodivergence
Colleges and universities are required to provide accommodations to students with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and should have an office of accommodations or disability.
However, in order for you to receive disability services, you must apply for the services yourself at the office and follow the rules of the college or university you attend. Each institution will have their own procedure about what documents you’ll need to provide as proof of your disability. There’s no national website or program that guides colleges or universities in the United States.
Once the office has approved your accommodations, they will notify professors in classes where you need accommodations letting them know about your disability and what accommodations you’re entitled to, such as extra time to complete exams, allowing the taping of lectures, extended deadlines for assignments, etc.
As a disability advocate and adjunct lecturer, I also personally recommend that if you’re a student with a disability, in addition to going through the office of accommodations at the school, you should also speak directly to your individual professors about your specific needs so that they can help accommodate you.
Find Your People
As the first person in your family to attend college or university, it’s important for you to find support and safety with people who understand your life experiences. An affinity group is a group of people who share an identity—like race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or veteran status—and gather to find connection, support, and inspiration on college campuses.
By joining one or more that speak to your interests and identity, you can develop meaningful relationships with people who share something in common with you. Some colleges may have affinity groups for first-gen students, as well. Some national organizations, including Rise First and Close the Gap Foundation, provide mentoring, grants, and other resources to support FGLI students.
Establish Mental Health Support
Find out whether your school has an on-campus counseling center or partnerships with community organizations who offer mental health support. Mental health services are often free or low cost, and they can be helpful with issues you might be facing, including family conflict, the transition to college, academic stress, depression, anxiety, or relationship struggles. They are there to help you get the support you need to feel comfortable on campus and have a good college experience.
To succeed as a college student—especially as a first-gen college student—remember that you can’t do everything yourself, and you shouldn’t try. You’re part of a community. It’s not only OK to ask for help; it’s a critical life skill.
Your middle-class and upper-class college peers have parent friends who are most likely helping them get internships, find mentors, and get jobs. Your professors, dean, counselors, and teaching assistants can provide some of that same support and those connections.
If you live on campus, make sure your resident adviser knows who you are. Don’t be afraid to get free tutoring or test prep help. Take the free classes in résumé writing class and job interviews. Connect with professors on campus and ask whether they’ll mentor you. And join those affinity groups for your social and mental well-being.
As a first-generation college student, it often feels like you have the weight of your family’s expectations on your shoulders—even more so if you’re a person of color and/or an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Remember that this is your future and your dream. Take time for yourself and make sure you put your emotional well-being first. You deserve it.