Valerie Asimacopoulos, Maine South and Tonyisha Harris, Whitney Young
The thought of heading off to college makes most teens feel excited, anxious and maybe a little scared. But first-generation students—those whose parents didn’t attend college—face a slew of other emotions as they prepare to step foot on college campuses across the country.
“It’s scary,” said Janet Gallardo, a senior at Whitney Young and future first-generation college student. “You won’t have anyone to tell you what it’s like.”
A few of the burdens these students face are balancing significant work and home responsibilities, financial challenges and a grueling workload that high schools in lower socioeconomic areas may not have prepared them for.
Not only do first-generation students report struggling to find their place in the college environment, but many doubt their ability to succeed at a university.
In 2011, the Pell Institute found that just 11 percent of low-income students who were the first in their family to attend college earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling.
Marquette University found that first-generation students “are twice as likely to drop out of college than their non-first generation counterparts before their second year in college” and “are less likely to socialize with peers from school or take part in student organizations.”
Joseph Deal, founder of Degree Prospects, which owns firstgenerationstudent.com, said that one of the major barriers first-generation students face is not having a family member who can guide them through the process with firsthand experience.
“This means that many students will have trouble understanding the application process, when to get started, the importance of SAT (and) ACT exams and the many other intricacies of preparing for college,” Deal explained. “At times, the process can seem overwhelming.”
As a result, students who don’t have someone to show them the ropes may not be fully aware of important information, like federal financial aid deadlines and application timelines.
Gallardo said her parents were still able to provide an emotional support system, even though they didn’t attend college.
“My dad would always bring in pamphlets of what colleges I might be interested in,” she said. “Both of them were out there with me living through this process, looking for colleges and finding the best they could. They were like my own counselors at home.”
Deal also pointed out that first-generation students don’t always know what to expect when they arrive on campus and sometimes experience culture shock.
“It takes time to become comfortable with how classes operate, managing coursework and living on their own,” he said.
These issues can test students’ sense of personal identity and make them feel insecure, said Catherine Parkay, research programs director at InsideTrack, an education company that helps students develop skills for success.
“College can feel like an unwelcoming foreign land with a set of unwritten rules and expectations—it can be very intimidating,” Parkay said. “In my experience, the biggest obstacles for first-generation students are often related to issues of identity, belonging and mindset or underlying beliefs—for example, believing you’re not college material. When those are addressed and with the right support, students who may not have had every opportunity can thrive.”
Experts also point to limited resources, which can put some first-generation students and their families at an automatic disadvantage.
“Having a lower quality K-12 experience or less access to extracurricular and enrichment activities will certainly impact a student’s academic preparation for college,” Parkay explained.
Even though it may seem like the odds are stacked against first-generation students, researchers and universities are looking at new opportunities to help them succeed.
A 2014 study by researchers at Northwestern and Stanford universities titled “Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap” found that it helped tremendously when incoming first-generation students heard from juniors and seniors from different social class backgrounds at the beginning of the school year.
“Students whose parents have earned a degree come to college with lots of know how and cultural capital that helps them navigate college’s often unspoken rules,” said Northwestern psychologist Nicole Stephens in a press release. “Talking about social class gives first-generation students a framework to understand how their own backgrounds matter in college, what unique obstacles they may face and see that people like them can be successful.”
These “interventions” included discussions on the ways students’ different backgrounds affected their college experience. Researchers found that this simple method “reduced the social-class achievement gap among first-generation and continuing-generation college students by 63 percent at the end of the first year and also improved first-generation students’ college transition on numerous psychosocial outcomes.”
It’s also critical that students seize any resources their schools and first-generation student programs offer.
“The most important thing for first-generation students to do is seek help,” Deal said. “Counselors, teachers, school administrators—they’re all there to help make the college application process more manageable.”
Parkay said students should ask for assistance and surround themselves with people who help cultivate a vision of their future. She added that InsideTrack coaches focus on working with students to develop a clear vision of what success looks like to them, test new strategies and tactics, build habits for success, debrief setbacks and plan ahead.
Gallardo said she’ll rely on her counselors to navigate the college landscape next year.
“I’ve already talked to a couple of counselors at (Boston University) and they do say they offer lots of counseling throughout freshman year,” she said. “You can walk into the counseling department and they will literally help you with any struggles you have.”
Parkay advised younger students to tap into the resources that are available now to set themselves up for a successful future.
“If you’re still in high school, start early and be proactive to make sure you take all the college prep courses you can. Make sure teachers and advisors are aware of your goal to attend college, and ask for accountability and support,” Parkay said. “If you’re already in college and feeling in over your head, reach out. Don’t suffer in silence or isolation. If your school has a coaching program, take advantage of it and find ways to connect with other first-generation students at your campus.”
Deal said colleges also hold the keys to success for first-generation students.
“In order to change their perspective, more—and better—support services need to be offered to these students,” Deal said. “By actively working with students from day one, we can guide them through the process and help them realize that a college degree is attainable.”
Loyola University’s STARS program (Students Together Are Reaching Success) is a prime example, offering first-generation students the opportunity to connect with successful upperclassmen for one-on-one and group mentoring.
More often than not, when students seek help, their internal motivations will guide them the rest of the way.
“Many first-generation students are motivated to create a different life for themselves,” Parkay said. “They may have seen a parent work hard and sacrifice to give them opportunities and don’t want to let anyone down. Or maybe it’s a goal to serve as an example to younger siblings, cousins or kids in their community.”
Article originally published in The Mash, April 2015.