5 Ways To Help Your First-Generation College Student

Preparing, overcoming cultural and economic obstacles, and helping to maximize a student's application and overall college experience.

First-Generation Students | Admissionado

The day I moved into my dorm was the first time my parents had ever stepped foot onto a college campus.

We drove from Chicago, my hometown, to my new home at Emory University. I had to arrive a week earlier to attend training for the school’s cross country team, so the usual freshmen orientation greeters weren’t there when we pulled in. I myself had never visited the college before, so after unloading things in my room, all three of us walked through campus for the first time. While I concentrated on navigating, my parents trailed behind, stopping to peek into lecture rooms of different buildings and marveling at the space.

When we said goodbye that afternoon, it felt like I was taking off – from one life to another.

Who Are First-Generation College Students?

While much of the research uses the definition as “a student with neither parent having any education beyond high school,” Admissionado chooses to define a first-generation college student as “neither parents having received a four-year college degree.”

I am a first-generation college student, as well as the first in my family to be born in America – both my parents immigrated from South Korea.

Feelings of inadequacy amongst first-generation students

My parents worked long hours so I could have the opportunity to attend any school I was accepted to. Many first-gen students are coming from a situation where no one around them has the experience of successfully completing higher education, so they have difficulty making connections between career goals and academic requirements and often wonder if they have what it takes to succeed at the university. Other struggles include:

Culture Shock / Stress

Experiencing a cultural conflict between home and the university environment, first-gen students tend to experience feelings of self-doubt, guilt or often associate with being an “imposter” who doesn’t belong once they’ve seized the opportunity to attend college.

Financial Difficulties

First-Gen students overwhelmingly come from low-income backgrounds and opt to work while taking a full class schedule.

Academically Unprepared

First-Generation students often have a lack of understanding about campus culture – like the need for networking or knowledge about how to access resources college campus. A recent Huffington Post article written by Dallas Rico recalls “the relentless onslaught of exams and essays” he
was completely unprepared for.

Parents of First-Generation Students face unique obstacles as well

If you are the parent of a first-generation student or potential first-gen student, you, too, may be facing some unique challenges. You may be unsure of what the college experience is like, or how you can best support your child through the admissions process. Mastery of the English language and culture also affects how engaged parents will be. I remember very vividly my parents wanted to help and truly cared about my education, but were not confident in their conversational skills so they minimally interacted with my schoolteachers, if at all.

Here are 5 things you can do to prepare your first-generation student for success in college, and the earlier, the better:

1) Develop reading and writing skills:

Sign up students for free or affordable tutoring programs at community organizations.

  • 826 National offers writing and after-school tutoring services for free in eight cities across the country. Most chapters host college essay writing workshops in the fall as well as support for scholarship essays.
  • Khan Academy offers free SAT prep materials and tutorials.

2) Read, read, and read:

Raise your expertise by finding resources related to college access and success.

3) Identify people who can help in and out of school:

A range of free mentorship programs are available across the country.

Teachers and school guidance counselors can provide significant support for students who lack confidence and knowledge about attending college, but the guidance counselor in an average American school is responsible for over 250 students. One-on-one mentorship is proven to have a significant impact on high school graduation rates and can be paramount to success for potential first-gen students.

  • F1rst Graduate is eligible for middle school and high school students in San Francisco whose parents parents have not earned a bachelor degree.
  • Students Rising Above is also free for anyone who meets their selection criteria.
  • East Youth Village Program located in Chicago provides high-quality college resources and support services to low-income, primarily Latino youth.
  • KIPP Through College offers college and career readiness programs to guide middle school and high school students through school and to successfully graduate from college. They have locations in NYC, Houston, DC, LA, Bay Area, and Austin.

4) Visit colleges whenever possible with your student and ask questions:

Tours are always free.

Admissionado recommends visiting these offices and making time to meet their staff if you’re ever on campus:

Office of Academic Advising or Academic Learning Services, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Career Center, and the Office of Financial Aid. Don’t let these great services go unused!

If you cannot take time off to go on a campus tour, there are alternatives online. University websites are also an untapped wealth of information. As you familiarize yourself more with the resources universities offer, you will be better able to give your student the specific support that they might need.

5) Talk with other parents:

Connect with parent communities both locally and online.

Finding parents who understand where you are may help you identify people or advice that will help you navigate the admissions process – from knowing how to analyze your financial aid package to knowing what your students can expect in college and what they’re going to be going through.

Bonus Tip: Explore professional college admissions consulting services

In the ever-evolving field of higher education, seeking professional college admissions consulting services is another viable option to consider. Many offer free initial consultations and are full of mentors who bring knowledge, passion, and personal experience to help a wide range of students apply to college.

First-generation college students are typically from economically disadvantaged households and grow up attending schools with fewer resources, yet are extraordinarily bright and capable, do extremely well in school, and love learning. Having a dedicated mentor counsel your child throughout the college admission process can provide needed support to first-gen students in particular.

College is one of the most valuable investments parents can make in their children’s future. As you continue to support and encourage them through college, they will feel more confident, more empowered, and hopefully discover a greater sense of belonging and thrive at the university of their choice.

Need some help with a college application? That’s what we’re here for!

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