Despite widespread conversations on racial identity and discrimination on college campuses, one particular struggle students face often fails to enter the discourse: the unique experiences of first-generation students. This, however, is starting to change. On campuses across the country, there are increasing efforts to reach out to first-generation students in order to make the transition into college easier for those whose families have not had experience in the pursuit of higher education.
First-generation students, whose parents have not received a four-year degree, are the first in their families to go to college — about 30 percent of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions are first-generation college students. There is often a misconception that first-generation students must be low-income. While this assumption is often correct, first-gens can come from any socioeconomic background. Research shows that low-income, first-generation students aspire to attend college at rates equal to those whose parents have a college degree and earn a higher income. However, these students often struggle to get to college. Studies show that the struggles for these students do not end once they matriculate. Approximately 89 percent of first-generation students who do get to college will not earn a bachelor’s degree in six years: First-generation students drop out of college at four times the rate of their peers whose parents have a postsecondary education.
There are many factors that put these students at a disadvantage both in access to, and in the continuation of higher education. More than most other students, first gens struggle to navigate the admissions process. The difficulties begin early — many of these students attend underserviced high schools where college counseling is hard to come by and there are few college-minded peers. Parental support is another important resource that first-generation students lack. This resonates with Jackie, a first-generation student at Brown who can attest to this fact: “My senior year, while I was applying to colleges and financial aid, I was really stressed, and my parents just didn’t understand what was making me so anxious.”
When first-generation students do make it to college, considerable challenges still await them. The first-generation experience is a deeply psychological one. Being the first in their families to go to college, first-generation students often feel that they are carrying a heavy load. A freshman at Brown, Wasita, a first-generation student, said: “There’s so much pressure…Other students have people to fall back on, because their status is stable. As a low-income, first-gen, you know you have to transcend your current social and economic state. Failing is not an option.” Since most first-generation students feel the need to achieve and provide for their families, they often center their academic goals towards helping their families overcome financial burdens. These burdens are substantial, and they severely impact the success of first-generation students, who must worry about the sorts of issues that are not on the minds of their peers.
For low-income first generation students at one of the nation’s most elite universities – Brown – the college experience is particularly hard. Many first-generation students have to work to support themselves, help parents back home or satisfy tuition bills. And in elite universities that notably lack socioeconomic diversity, though not Canada Goose coats, it can be uncomfortable being in a bad financial situation. “It creates a divide between you and your friends, especially if you want to live together and everyone has to have a similar financial background,” Rania, another low-income, first generation student, said. “Even with going out on the weekends—you want to go out with them, but you know you can’t.”
Luckily, however, many institutions are beginning to offer space for first-generation students to help one another and cope with the general lack of information and support. Brown, for example, recently held a discussion titled “First in the Family” about being a first-generation college student during orientation. At Brown, first-generation students also participate in various group outings that take students to fun places including bowling allies and Dave and Busters. Perhaps more important, this network is built by students, for students. While first-generation initiatives are normally run by faculty members at other schools, upperclassmen first-generation students at Brown, along with involved freshmen, consistently contact new students who may have the same troubles they had when they arrived on campus, creating a feeling of solidarity and a built-in support network.
But having first-gen outreach led by students has its drawbacks. In many cases, the students responsible for these programs receive no financial support and struggle to balance their outreach efforts with their studies. Moreover, at most universities, there is no active faculty member whose sole focus is to help students that are first-generation students. “Students feel alone, and administrators who are supposed to work with us have so many different organizations that they’re meeting with, that they don’t have time,” Haley, a first-generation student at Brown, said. “This first-generation effort has resulted in a student movement, but we’re college students; we burn out.” And despite weekly meetings occurring on Brown’s campus for first generation students, a lot of the students on campus were unaware of any of these meetings because of the difficulties in conducting outreach.
All this aside, the first-gen movement is growing in strength. From February 27 to March 1, Brown University held the nation’s first national conference for first-generation students called 1VYG, another student-led initiative. 1VYG brought students from across the nation together to discuss what it means to be first-gen and create a stronger network of first-generation students. This national conference was led by Brown’s first generation students and was momentous for first-generation youth. The message sent to students from all attending schools — and at Brown in particular — was that the first-gen college experience is one that many struggle with across campuses. And since 1VYG, the first-generation community at Brown continues to grow with events and workshops that help students educate themselves on navigating university life. These are first steps, of course; first-gen students still face enormous barriers in access and on campuses. But events like 1VYG and growing awareness of first-gen issues represent a larger point: that students are taking the lead to support each other.
Artwork by Soraya Ferdman.