First-generation university students face distinct struggles

Katherine Velez

Have you ever run a race and wished you at least had some sort of head start? Or some sort of assurance that will guarantee you first place? First-generation college students face this battle throughout their four years and even in the few leading up to college. There is that feeling that haunts our emotions, that no matter how hard we try to catch up, someone is always one step ahead. The variety of issues that open up feel almost endless, and yet, some people do not realize these facts. 

So here’s some perspective from a first-generation student. My family immigrated from Samacá, Colombia, when my mom was very young, and my dad grew up as a migrant worker, traveling around the U.S. following crops. Unfortunately, neither of my parents were given the opportunity to go to college. One was not a U.S. citizen, and the other was forced to quit school and go to work at 12 years old. None of my grandparents attended college, given similar circumstances. Growing up, my family pushed my sister and I to always put school first, to make it a priority and do anything we could to get that degree. That has been my goal since I can remember, when my first teacher gave me inspiration that I will never lose nor forget — my grandma. She showed my sister and I each day how possible it is to get through these obstacles that constantly come at us. Her strength and support push me to keep going even when I want to give up and drop everything. No matter how tough it gets for me, I hear her rooting for me back at home.

I was lucky enough to have support and love from my family to help me through it all. Even then, there is a certain point where your parents haven’t had enough experience to teach you every detail and advise you on what you need to do to be successful throughout college. Not many first-generation students get this privilege. It’s hard enough trying to figure out every step of the way, but not having any support makes it so much harder.

In the early stages of the application process in high school, there is not much explanation of all the steps that need to be completed to get through the applications. No one tells you that your grades starting in ninth grade affect the probability of being accepted. You feel as though no one understands why you feel so guilty for leaving your family behind, nor do they tell us that you will feel alone and that you don’t belong.        

Another big issue that most first-gen students experience is trying to make ends meet with extra costs that we don’t expect. Yes, we figured out the cost of our textbooks and those access codes, but what about the part of actually living? You have to buy extra dorm supplies, right? All the stress of figuring out the tuition has caused you to lose track of those non-tuition expenses. Obviously, you’re going to need soap, sheets for your bed, some extra snacks to take to class — you get
the point.

Usually the next step is to get a part-time job to fix this issue. While working during the school year isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, it’s imperative you don’t start taking on so many hours that you sacrifice spending time on school work and socializing with friends. You’ll drive yourself crazy, and your grades will also reflect it from the lack of sleep
you’ll have.

If you are a first-generation student, there is one important thing you need to get from this: You are not alone. At least 50 percent of students in the US are first-generation students, and only 30 percent of all incoming freshman are also ( Find a group that shares your values, which will help that feeling of being on your own. I get it — all your friends seem to be pretty set for college. They have been given advice from their parents, cousins and older siblings on what to do. It seems that they know all the ins and outs of college, and you feel like you’re getting left behind in that race. Now that you are the first person in your family to step forward in this “uncharted territory,” you feel the pressure to set the scale. Your younger siblings look up to you, you’re the kid your parents brag about and you don’t want to let them down.

We can finish this race and we can finish it strong. It will all soon pay off — all your hard work, those sleepless nights, the constant questions of how to break down these barriers that no one else seems to have, the guilt of abandoning your family to pursue your own dreams. 

Just say to yourself, “I won’t give up, and I do belong.” 

Velez is an international relations and global studies junior.