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Will I Fit In at College as a First-Generation Student?
If your parents did not pursue higher education, applying to college can be an especially exciting process. Overcoming the roadblocks that many first-generation (or “first-gen”) college applicants face is an achievement of which you should be very proud.
However, you may be wondering what’s on the other side of college application season. If you are admitted to a college, will your first-gen status affect your experience once you arrive on campus? Will you be able to feel like you fit in when relatively few of your peers share your first-gen experiences?
Adjusting to college life can be hard for any student, and this is often especially true for first-gen students, who may have less experience with collegiate life than their classmates. Knowing what to expect and what resources and strategies may help you to feel at home can help you transition more smoothly into this next stage of life.
Read on to learn more about what you can expect as a first-gen college student as well as some advice for managing your worries about fitting in.
The first-gen experience and transitioning to college
As the term is most commonly defined, a first-gen college student or applicant is one whose parents did not graduate from four-year colleges. If your parents never attended college, or if they took some college classes but never received bachelor’s degrees, you’re first-gen.
Every first-gen college applicant has a different family history, and first-gen college students may vary widely in their demographic features. However, it’s commonly known in admissions that first-gen status is frequently correlated with lower family income and with coming from communities where fewer people attend college overall.
Here at the CollegeVine blog, we’ve addressed the first-gen experience and issues particular to first-gen college applicants in a number of past posts, including these:
As these posts show, first-gen applicants often encounter particular challenges in accessing higher education. Parents who didn’t attend college may have less background knowledge about and feel less comfortable with the college application process. This can noticeably affect a student’s motivation to apply to and attend college, especially when their communities lack financial and other resources.
For many students, first-gen status can be a source of pride. However, it can also lead these students to feel out of place or even invisible within college communities. While attending college is usually very exciting for first-gen students, challenges related to their status can make the process of transitioning to college more difficult.
Below, I’ll address some particular situations that, as a first-gen college student, you might be worried about encountering once you get to campus. Drawing from my personal experience as a first-gen college student, I’ll also offer some strategies that can help you to deal with these common fears.
I’m worried that I’ll feel like I don’t belong at college. What if I just don’t deserve to be there?
You’d be surprised at how many people, no matter what kind of background they come from, share this fear. However, it’s certainly easier to doubt yourself when it seems like no one around you comes from a similar background.
It may help you to consider that your first-gen status can actually be a plus on your college application. Your determination and dedication in pursuing a college education in the face of obstacles is an impressive characteristic, and your experiences add a valuable perspective to the diversity of the campus environment. Colleges recognize that first-gen students have something special to contribute, and that the school is enriched by their presence.
For an example, let’s look at Harvard University, an icon of educational excellence that’s particularly recognizable in American culture. As we’ve covered in our CollegeVine Ultimate Guide to Applying to Harvard, Harvard’s undergraduate program is among the most selective in the country, with an overall acceptance rate of about 5.4% for the 2015-2016 application season.
According to Harvard’s website, about 15% of current Harvard students are first-gen. Since Harvard has 6,699 undergraduate students as of the fall of 2016 according to their US News and World Report profile, this means that there are over a thousand first-gen students attending Harvard at the time of this writing. Obviously, that’s a significant number of students— and a compelling reminder that first-gen students belong.
Think about it this way: Harvard has enough qualified applicants to fill its matriculating class several times over, and the school chooses to admit first-gen students like you. The most prestigious colleges in the country attempt to attract the most promising students in the country, and they recognize that some of the most promising students around are first-gen.
In keeping with this philosophy, many schools have recently sought to improve their outreach to first-gen applicants.The Harvard College admissions office, for instance, runs a specific program aimed at making sure that first-gen applicants are aware of all their college options, including Harvard. Resources on campus for first-gen students are also on the rise.
Whether you feel that you deserve the honor or not, if a competitive college accepts you, that’s a sign that they actively want you to be part of their campus community. You’ll likely still encounter some challenges because of your first-gen status, but you can gain strength from the certainty that you are a valued and wanted part of the community.
I worry that I don’t know enough about how college works and what to do. I don’t want to do something wrong and mess up my college education.
Transitioning from high school to college is a big step—you’re changing your lifestyle in many different ways all at once. Getting acclimated to the college environment, from academic etiquette to social norms, can be an especially difficult process when you’re first-gen and don’t have parents with firsthand experience to draw from.
In my own experience, starting college as a first-gen student was a big adjustment. I didn’t really understand what a Ph.D. was when I matriculated, or what it meant to be a professor. When I chose my classes for my first year, I encountered academic departments that I’d never heard of before. The world of elite academia was entirely new to me, and I was terrified that I’d make a mistake and ruin this opportunity for myself.
My best advice for this situation is to ask questions. Your questions may seem silly sometimes, but it’s better to know than to try to work with gaps in your knowledge or incorrect assumptions. In addition to first-gen resource centers, which are increasingly a presence on college campuses, other resources are available to help you make good decisions about managing your academic life.
It may take some bravery to be open about your areas of confusion with your academic advisor, professor, or other faculty or staff member, but being proactive is a necessity. Ask your advisor to explain academic procedures with which you’re not familiar. Schedule a meeting with your financial aid advisor if your scholarship situation has you confused. Whatever your question, it’s best to ask and be sure.
Doing this will create some extra work for you, but it’s worth it. The people around you can’t help you if they don’t know that you have a problem. Building relationships with faculty and staff can also be extremely valuable later on, so it’s wise to start early.
I worry that I won’t be academically prepared for my college classes.
Many first-gen students come from situations in which they didn’t have access to the highest-quality high school education. If relatively few students from your high school attend college, for example, the high school may not offer many (or any) AP courses or other high-level courses. Financial and time constraints can also leave you feeling less prepared for college.
However, colleges understand that not every matriculating student has the same academic background, and most schools offer a wide range of course options to meet these differing needs. Be sure to look at your intended colleges’ course catalogs, which are usually available online. You may be surprised at just how many courses you can choose from.
Colleges also work to ensure that students are placed in courses that are appropriate for them. You may be asked to take a placement test to determine which college course fits your skill level. You’ll likely also be assigned an academic advisor, who can assist you with choosing your courses and make sure you’re on track to graduate in your chosen major.
If you eventually find yourself struggling with your coursework, you can rest assured that many resources exist to help you. Tutoring sessions from more advanced students are commonly available. Less formally, you might benefit from study groups, emailing a question to your TA, or visiting the professor during their office hours. Accessing these resources will likely require some work on your part, but it’s worth it to be proactive about getting help when you need it.
Finally, you should realize that college courses, whether they’re giant lectures or intimate seminars, are usually quite different than high-school courses in terms of everything from expectations to classroom environment to grading standards. The majority of your fellow first-years, whether first-gen or not, will also be adjusting to a new set of norms along with you.
One way that some colleges seek to ease this transition is to offer “first-year seminars” or similar courses. These courses are usually enrollment-limited and reserved for first-years, and give students the opportunity to get used to college coursework in a supportive environment with the close attention of the professor. Taking one of these courses can be especially helpful if you’re a first-gen student worried about your ability to succeed in a college classroom.
I worry that my first-gen perspective will be ignored or disregarded in the classroom.
This variation on the question of fitting in may or may not apply to you. In my own experience, I frequently encountered professors and fellow students who assumed that everyone in the classroom shared a similar background and set of experiences. I felt downright invisible when my own background didn’t match up with this assumption.
It’s true that your presence in the classroom as a first-gen student may be unexpected for your professors or classmates. They may think that people from your situation just don’t go to college. However, this doesn’t mean that your presence is a bad thing. In fact, your perspective can enrich the classroom environment in significant ways, and as we’ve discussed above, colleges actively value the inclusion of first-gen students.
The simplest way to avoid being ignored in a classroom, especially in a smaller or more discussion-based courses, is to let your voice be heard. Of course, this is often easier said than done. You might feel shy about contradicting the professor, and given the stereotypes that some people hold about those who don’t pursue higher education, you might be embarrassed or afraid to reveal such a personal detail about your background.
It can be very hard to feel like you need to constantly speak up and remind other members of the college community that first-gen student exist as part of the community— and, even more importantly, that these students belong as part of the community. However, it’s worth it to do so when you can, not just for you, but for the other first-gen students who may be in that classroom and may be struggling with the same sense of being out of place.
I worry that being a first-gen college student will make it harder for me to make friends and get along with my peers.
Being first-gen can lead to some difficult conversations with your peers, especially if you’re also from a lower-income background. Your roommate might cheerfully assume that you can afford to split the cost of a big-screen TV for your room. Your friends might get frustrated that you can’t come to social events because you need to hold down a part-time job, and so on.
Explaining your situation can be tough, but socioeconomic and educational differences aren’t necessarily deal-breakers when it comes to making friends and having a positive social experience at college. A good friend may not share your experiences, but they’ll be willing to listen, learn, and compromise to accommodate your needs.
Seeking out other first-gen students for companionship can be very helpful, and many colleges are developing resources for first-gen students that are useful socially as well as academically and professionally. Look for events, student groups, or even resource centers on your campus; these opportunities can help you get to know others who understand what it’s like to be first-gen.
Friendships with other first-gen students can give you an opportunity to vent about the challenges you’re facing and share practical tips for how to handle being first-gen on your particular campus. Best of all, having another first-gen student as a friend can help with the feelings of loneliness or being out of place that can come with the first-gen experience.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t become friends with people whose parents have college degrees. One of the greatest aspects of college, socially speaking, is that you’ll get to know people from an incredible variety of backgrounds. If you’re first-gen, many of these people will likely have grown up with advantages to which you didn’t have access.
As a first-gen college student, your main criterion for friendship should be respect. You deserve better than to have friends who tease or denigrate you because of your background, pressure you to spend more than you can afford, or add to your feelings of not fitting in. Regardless of family educational background or income level, a good friend is one who can try to understand and accommodate the differences between your situations.
Interested in learning more about the college application process? Check out the CollegeVine blog for posts on everything from building your extracurricular profile to perfecting your application to choosing which college to attend. CollegeVine’s mentorship services can also help to guide you through the admissions process and put your best face forward on your applications.