If I’ve learned anything as a first-generation college student, it is how much I didn’t know that I needed to know. My most monumental struggle has been uncovering knowledge about the things I was completely unaware of. Often, I realized the things about college I didn’t know about were well-known, if not obvious, to students who grew up in households with parents who had gone to college and understood the ins and outs of the entire experience.
Without access to parents who possess the cultural capital gained from the college experience, first-generation students struggle to navigate the opportunities colleges provide. With over half of college students lacking parents with a bachelor’s degree, colleges need to focus on connecting first-generation students with the resources they need to succeed in college.
The struggle for first-generation students starts well before college. While many students know from the moment they start high school that it is important to seek out activities and opportunities that will make them stand out in college applications, learning the intricacies of college admissions can be more difficult for many first-generation students. Not having parents familiar with the application process means that students have to seek out information on their own, which presents another hurdle first-generation students must overcome, even before getting to college. Though I had teachers talk about college while I was in high school, I was blatantly unaware of the complexity of the application process. Having to learn things like how to pick schools that align with your needs and wants, what early action applications are or how to understand a college’s tuition and fees is a barrier first-generation students must contend with. Our educational system has failed to prioritize the needs of first-generation students, especially early on in our educational careers.
For first-generation students, understanding what to do in high school to apply and get into a college is a daunting experience. However, the difficulty of navigating the academic, professional, social and financial aspects of college has been tenfold. Orientation, while stressful for every student, was particularly overwhelming for me and other first-generation students. Every part of it, from signing up for classes to learning about the opportunities the university provided, was a completely new experience that I quickly realized I was wholly unprepared for. Nowhere in the piles of brochures I received in my admissions packets or at orientation did I see anything about resources for first-generation students. However, it’s not because they don’t exist. Programs like First Gen Gateway help connect first-generation students at the University of Michigan to useful resources, but it is ironic that the students who need help finding resources are supposed to somehow find a resource they don’t even know exists.
Another problem I face is managing the stigma that comes with being a first-generation student. Searching out these resources means identifying with an attribute that is too often looked down upon by those in higher education. This stigma can even prevent students from reaching out for help, which is exactly why first-generation programs must actively recruit students. The College Board recommends that high schools identify and reach out to first-generation students as early as possible. That advice is just as applicable to colleges, especially because they can tailor resources specifically to the needs of their students and the opportunities their colleges provide.
However, support for first-generation students must go beyond high school. Support should be integrated into the interactions we have at orientation and with advisors and faculty. Providing students with the resources they need to succeed in college, especially early on in their college careers, can result in not only a more equitable experience compared to their peers whose parents passed down their knowledge, but also result in a more satisfactory college experience overall.
Because my status as a first-generation student was not acknowledged, let alone prioritized, it took me years to understand what kinds of experiences I needed to take away from my college career and how to really overcome my initial misconceptions. I wish that I had started college with much more knowledge of the resources available. A simple email about first-generation initiatives on campus before I started college or a conversation with my advisor about the resources for students like me could’ve gone a long way.
If colleges have the resources to support first-generation students, then they must actively connect with the students who can benefit from their services. This means proactively recruiting students to programs as soon as possible and training advisors and faculty to be more cognizant of the struggles of first-generation students.
Theodora Vorias is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.