If you’re a first-generation, or “first-gen”, college student, you’ll likely face some special challenges in the process of applying to colleges. One of these challenges lies in navigating the differences between what students from your community usually do after high school, and the plans you have made for yourself. While many will applaud your ambitions, some may react less positively.

When you’re pursuing goals that are unusual for someone of your upbringing, others may be confused, curious, or critical about why you have chosen to do so. Some may even feel that your college goals are a sign that you’re rejecting or abandoning your home community. However, going to college doesn’t have to mean that you’re devaluing the place or way in which you were brought up.

Are you one of the many first-gen college applicants grappling with issues of identity and how to reconcile your plans with your past experiences? Read on for some advice from CollegeVine on how to honor the benefits of your background and maintain a good relationship with your community of origin.

The first-gen experience and feeling distant from your community

A first-gen college applicant is typically defined as someone whose parents have not graduated from four-year colleges. Every first-gen applicant’s situation is different, but first-gen applicants often come from lower-income backgrounds or from communities in which fewer people attend college overall. On a more personal level, first-gen applicants may struggle with feeling out of place or invisible on college campuses.

While parents who didn’t graduate from college are just as eager to help with the application process as any other parents, they often don’t have the same well of experiences from which to draw. Being first-gen can mean that a student has less access to resources and advice about the college application process than other students, which can significantly impact that student’s access to higher education.

While parents of first-gen students understand that a college degree is a vital asset in today’s world,  they and other members of the larger community may feel somewhat uncomfortable dealing with the college application process because it’s unfamiliar to them. Parental discomfort can contribute to a sense of distance between first-gen college applicants and their home communities. This sense of difference can make you or others feel as if you’re rejecting or abandoning your upbringing in favor of education and a different lifestyle. Learning to reconcile your ambitions with your background is a common challenge for first-gen college students.

Is it possible that I’m really being disrespectful to my family and community?

This is a difficult question to answer with generalities. People have complex relationships to the communities they grew up in, and making decisions about your future is usually an emotionally charged process. In addition, your general attitude in dealing with your community can communicate many things that you might choose not to say out loud.

For many young people, decisions about college offer an opportunity to develop and demonstrate their growing independence. Sometimes, efforts to be independent can bring young people into contact with their parents, community members, teacher, or other authorities who may disagree about what is the best path to take.

In the midst of these tensions, it’s definitely possible to be condescending or dismissive to your parents or other people in your community, whether overtly or in subtle ways. Even if you’re not doing so on purpose, this can make people in your life feel rejected, or suggest that your college goals are incompatible with maintaining a relationship with your community of origin.


However, choosing a path that’s different from what you grew up with is not inherently disrespectful. Becoming a first-gen college student doesn’t have to mean that you’re rejecting your community and all the things it stands for, or that you’re ungrateful for what it taught you. It simply means that you’ve chosen to take your talents in a different direction than those who have gone before you—and you likely have good reasons to do so.

In the end, only you can decide which path (or which college, or which major) is truly best for you. Still, relationships with your family and community members are important. Recognizing and appreciating the positive things that your community has provided and instilled can help you to maintain these relationships even as you work toward your own goals.

How can I focus on the positive aspects of my first-gen status?

It’s very possible that you have mixed and complex feelings about your community of origin; you don’t have to be a first-gen college applicant to feel this way. This is natural, but emphasizing the negative can strain your relationship with this community and deepen the sense of alienation on both sides. If you want to maintain a good relationship with your home community, it’s important to also recognize your community’s strengths.

One way to honor the positive aspects of being a first-generation college applicant is to be open about the ways in which you value your community of origin. You can do this both when speaking to community members directly and in conversation with people outside your community.

It’s easy to take your home for granted and overlook the ways in which it has shaped you into the ambitious, hardworking student you are today. Often, we forget to voice our recognition of this fact out loud, but doing so can help considerably in maintaining good relationships with those close to you.

Another way to honor your community is to remain actively involved in community activities. Organizing community events or using your academic skills to tutor kids in your neighborhood can help you not only stay connected to your upbringing, but help you appreciate where you come from. This extracurricular community involvement can also be a valuable asset on your college applications.

Aside from the particular positive aspects of different communities, being a first-gen college applicant can itself come with distinct benefits. One particularly great thing about this role is that it gives you a unique perspective that is sometimes hard to come by in higher-education environments. This unique perspective can actually be a major asset for you.

In college, you may find that issues that are abstract and theoretical for others may be immediate and personal for you, and your contributions can help others to better understand the issue. For example, a classroom discussion of access to higher education could be considerably enriched by your viewpoint.

When colleges decide which applicants to accept, their goal is usually to create an incoming first-year class that is not only academically impressive and intellectually promising, but also diverse in the interests and experiences it represents. The concept of diversity applies not only to factors like ethnicity and religion, but also to socioeconomic status and the environment in which you grew up.

Your presence in the classroom as a first-gen college student and your openness about what your family and community have taught you can help to fight the assumption that all college students come from a particular background or that college is only appropriate for a certain group of people. Honoring your background means recognizing that the particular set of experiences you bring to the table is just as valuable as what others have to contribute.

How do I respond to people who tell me I’m rejecting my community?

When considering your college plans, as always, it’s wise to listen to constructive criticism from people you trust. However, you also shouldn’t necessarily change your goals just because of someone’s discouraging words.

As we’ve addressed in the CollegeVine blog post “Doubt, Discouragement, and Setting Appropriate Goals in High School,” sometimes, even well-meaning people make suggestions about your future that may not be what’s best for you. Setting high goals and challenging yourself is important for your motivation, and your own perception of your ability is probably more accurate than someone else’s.

Sometimes, it’s fine to ignore people who criticize your college plans. This is especially true of people who may not know you all that well. Not everyone has an opinion that truly matters, and few have the data and insight necessary to make informed comments about your future goals.

For people who are closer to you, such as family members, the subject needs to be handled more delicately. While sticking to your college goals is important, you’ll of course want to avoid burning bridges and damaging relationships with people who are important to you.

One way to respond to a comment like this is to try to help the commenter understand why you’re pursuing a college path that is unusual for someone from your community. Try to show your critic why the prospect of attending college excites you, and how the schools you’re considering will help you develop your talents so that you can make a bigger impact on the world around you.

Find and point out aspects of your college plan that might particularly interest that person. If this person could go to college, what would they most want to learn? Does a college have an innovative program in a discipline or subject that particularly fascinates this person? Explore how your decision to attend college will offer you opportunities that your community will particularly value and appreciate.

In order to help your family and community to understand what’s valuable to you about getting a college education, it’s a good idea involve them in the college application process. They don’t necessarily need to know every little detail, but make sure they understand what your goals are, what it takes to achieve those goals, and where you currently are in the application process.

Knowledge is power, and being better informed about how college applications work may help people in your family or community to feel more comfortable with the world of higher education. Our blog post on “Helping Parents Understand College Applications: A Guide for First-Generation College Applicants” offers some strategies for involving the people in your life in the application process.

On a more personal level, it can also help a great deal to reassure any commenters that you won’t forget where you came from. As we’ve mentioned, it’s easy to forget to express appreciation for the people, resources, and communities that we encounter in our daily lives.

In conversation with people who are skeptical of your college plans, let your communities know that they will be in your mind and heart as you pursue your degree. Remind them that higher education may grant you access and influence, and that you can use these advantages to make sure that the issues that hit closest to home get proper attention.

Finally, it’s important for you and others to recognize that, though you may face a number of challenges as a first-gen college applicant, your experience itself will help to make things easier for the next young person from your family or community with similar ambitions. Pursuing challenging goals can make you an inspiration and a resource, someone who broadens the range of what seems possible for the next generation of community members.  

Are you a high-school student who aims to become a first-gen college student? These posts from the CollegeVine blog can help to prepare you for the particular challenges that first-gen college applicants may face. Be sure to check out the rest of our blog as well for valuable information on all the details of the application process.

Here at CollegeVine, we provide assistance with all aspects of the college application process, from standardized test preparation to essay editing to help in choosing the best college for you. Our mentors are experienced and knowledgeable about the ins and outs of applying to competitive colleges—and we do it all for a lower cost than most of our competitors. For a free initial consultation, fill out the form below, and a CollegeVine advisor will contact you soon![gravityform id=”2″ title=”false” description=”false”]

Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.
Monikah Schuschu