Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick

Life

What It’s Really Like To Be A First-Generation College Student

"A part of me feels like I had to do a lot in order to prove that I belonged on campus"

"Being a first-generation college student colors nearly every facet of my college experience, from the way I operate in class, to the way I approach people, to the way I feel when I walk across the quad," Heather Phan Nguyen, a senior at Vassar College, told NYLON recently.

Nguyen is one of thousands of students across the country who are the first in their family to attend university. These students, also known as first-generation or "first-gen" college students, often have a harder time applying to and succeeding in college due to a combination of cultural, economic, and social barriers. About one-third of college students in America are first-generation, a number that has decreased since the 1990s. And at private, highly selective universities, the numbers are often even smaller. "A part of me feels like I had to do a lot in order to prove that I belonged on campus," Nguyen said.

One of the biggest barriers for first-generation college students is finances, which can impact both a student's ability to apply to college and their experience once admitted. Studies show that a student's socioeconomic status is the biggest determinant of what sort of college they are admitted to—a student who can afford to hire a college counselor or an SAT tutor, for example, is more likely to get into and attend a higher-ranked university.

"I applied to colleges entirely by myself without a single edit on any of my statements," Marlin, a first-gen senior at the University of Chicago, confirmed. "I didn't have any idea how the application process worked, and there was no one to help me. It was really stressful."

Although not all first-generation students are low-income, these two identity factors are often closely related. While scholarships from funds like Questbridge or university-based financial aid packages can help ease some of the financial burden, being in a different economic situation than one's peers can still be taxing in other ways.

Being first-generation can not only manifest in financial stress but can also take a huge emotional toll on a student. First-gen students often struggle with feelings of isolation or imposter syndrome, feeling like they do not belong at university because it is a space that they are culturally unaccustomed to. What's more, as intellect—or perceptions of it—is so strongly associated with a person's educational background, it's easy for first-gen students to feel inadequate, since they don't have the same academic or social foundation as others, because their family did not have access to higher education.

"My own father had told me that he thought he wasn't smart because he didn't go to college, so I may not be as smart as other students I go to school with," Elena Do, a senior at Swarthmore College, recalled. "And at one point, I did believe this."

And while many college students can confide in their parents or other family members when feeling overwhelmed with adjusting to a new environment, most first-gen students do not have this luxury due to language or cultural barriers, which can further exacerbate feelings of isolation.

"I would see people talk to their parents on the phone and get advice for classes and things like that, and I'd get upset because I wanted to share what I was feeling with my family, but I didn't know how to translate this vast new world with my parents who couldn't go through it with me," said Nguyen. "It was frustrating beyond measure, and I remember feeling severely isolated during freshman year due to the dissonance between my home life and my school life."

To ease this emotional burden, first-generation students turn to a variety of communities and resources. Many colleges—like Tufts University, Brown University, and Vassar College—have designated programs to help first-generation freshmen adjust to their first year at college. Additionally, several national organizations like Questbridge and the Center for First-Generation Student Success provide scholarships, mentoring, and community for marginalized students.

"We understand that universities were not built with a first-generation population in mind and that there are some structural barriers that these students face besides finances," says Margot Cardamone, the director of the FIRST Resource Center at Tufts University. "At the First Resource Center, we have financial resources, a mentorship program, and resources for high school students during the application process. We recognize that being first-gen is an invisible identity and think that people need to start recognizing it."

Aside from providing mentorship and financial aid, many colleges also provide free counseling services that all students can take advantage of. For many first-gen students, particularly those who are also students of color, it can be difficult to seek professional help due to stigma around therapy. However, for those who choose to take advantage, counseling can be a good way to process the feelings of guilt or confusion that being at university can sometimes bring.

"For many first-gen students, the idea of failure holds so much weight because these students are creating the story for their whole family and there is so much pressure to succeed," said Shenette Scille, a counselor at the Metcalf Center at Vassar College. "This pressure can take a huge emotional toll. My job is to validate these feelings, and to remind them that defeat can have a domino effect. I often tell these students that failure is inevitable, even when you are working towards success."

While counseling and scholarships can help first-generation students feel more emotionally and financially secure in a university environment, many first-gen students also seek out community to find joy and comfort on campus. Having a community of friends, professors, and mentors who understand the specific challenges that being first-gen can bring allows these students to feel validated, accepted, and worthy in a space that was not built to accommodate them.

"Talking about my experiences has helped a lot," said Nguyen. "Finding people who relate, connecting with mentors, and realizing that my experiences don't exist in a vacuum have made me more confident in navigating college. I'm first-gen and struggled a lot, but even still, this is an opportunity that I am extremely privileged to have, and I'm still figuring out how to navigate the capital I'm amassing against my background."