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Silent Struggles of Being a First Generation College Student

Here are some things you may never notice what we’re struggling with.

Moving Away Guilt

I think this is the worst one. Moving away to attend college kind of felt like I was abandoning my family. I grew up in a single-parent household with my mom and older brother. Since we had only her income, we were always pressed financially. When my mom was injured and could no longer work, things get even worse. Although we are doing better as a family now, my high school self felt an immense case of guilt at the thought of leaving her in a less-than-great financial situation. Being the only one in your household to move away, but not being financially independent is a horrible feeling. Asking for money when you know your parent has to sacrifice is a very helpless feeling. As blessed as we are to continue our education, the guilt we bear every day is a serious mental challenge.

If you’re battling with guilt like me, I suggest finding your fellow first-gens and get to know each other. If need, start a support group. Talking about these feelings and sharing similar experiences can be very helpful. Of course, it takes away that isolated feeling but also helps normalize first-generation college students. We need to feel normal and welcomed in every room we walk into.

No Professional Connections

Not only are we new on campus, but most of us are also new to the professional world. I come from a hard-working family. They have trades and jobs that typically don’t require a 4-year degree. I had no one to refer to help me when it came to creating a resume, learning business etiquette or even building a professional wardrobe. Yes, I could find resources online, ask friends, but it becomes awkward asking for help in those situations because they are so normalized on a college campus.

Utilizing your university’s resources are imperative to your success as a student. Also, you pay for them so you might as well get every penny’s worth. Go to the Career Center to help build you up professionally. Attend events on campus so you can get connected on campus and be involved (they almost always serve some sort of free food). Don’t be afraid to sit in front of the class and get to know your professor. We were already far back in life enough. You don’t need to waste any more space and not be noticed for the right reasons.

Lack of Support from Family

I want to start by saying I love my family. I come from a very large family and I cherish every relationship I have with them. It gets difficult to explain how I received little support from them because I know, on one hand, my family will do their best to help me in any way they can. I had to rely on them when I didn’t have a car, a job or a cellphone. When it came to emotional and mental support, that’s where the lack came into play. As first gens, we struggle with expressing our challenges to our loved ones because we’re afraid to hear unfavorable advice. I feared the first piece of advice they would give would be to move back home to transfer or to drop out. How could I explain to them that I’m invested in my education? They can’t solve my problems for me so I was terrified I would lose their support if they offered advice that I didn’t take.

As difficult as it sounds, be transparent with your family. It’s true they may not have faced the same challenges you are, but they are experienced in life. They may have a story that you need to need to hear for encouragement. Also, reassure them that you’re doing okay. This experience is new to them as well. If you only give vague answers of how you’re doing, that could cause some internalized guilt on their part. I felt so bad when I was telling my mom about all of my struggles and she felt bad because she felt she sent me to college unprepared. In the midst of realizing that, I had to give her a more balanced perspective of how I was actually doing instead of painting an inaccurate picture.

Work-Life Balance

This may be the most obvious struggle that everyone can notice, however, we don’t like to admit it. Most first-gen students are also students of color. No one wants to admit being a double-minority on campus sucks. So many people already look to us as successful because we achieved so much earlier on in our lives. So telling everyone that we feel the complete opposite of how it seems on social media and in-person can make us feel like we’re disappointing others or sound ungrateful for our position. I couldn’t imagine telling my cousins how I hate college life when they weren’t blessed with some of the same opportunities I had.

I have two suggestions to help this. First, give yourself a break. Everyone struggles with balancing work and personal life. This is going to be an ongoing battle that you can never truly master because we can’t control every aspect of our lives. Second, you have to focus on prioritizing and then trust everything else will fall into place. This requires some faith. I get overwhelmed really easy and I remind myself to be kind to myself when I feel like I’m failing in a certain aspect in my life. Sometimes we have to tell our inner voice to shut up and take things one day at a time. Things will fall into place.

Desire to Graduate Amplified

Of course, all students want to be successful and graduate. First-gens experience this at an amplified level because we are the first to do it. Imagine the disappointment our loved ones including ourselves if we invested so much time, money and other resources to get to college just to not finish. That’s devastating. I didn’t want to be the one in my family that moves out for a couple of years just to return empty-handed. I had to finish. There were no semesters off. There were no “do-overs.” I felt I had to graduate regardless of the circumstances. I’m sure most first-gens put this same type of pressure on themselves as well.

College is a marathon, not a sprint. As ambitious as we may be while we are a student, it’s important to enjoy the journey. We are learning and growing. Mistakes will happen. We will struggle with things that don’t even relate back to being a first-gen student. Don’t feel discouraged. Your family is proud of you. Your friends and other loved ones are proud of you. Reflect back on how much you had to overcome to get where you are today. You should be proud of yourself.

So whether you are looking to begin your college career soon, graduated with your degree or somewhere in the middle, know that you are not alone. I’ve learned the biggest part of adulthood is figuring stuff out as it comes. We can’t always follow the path that others walked and that’s okay. Sometimes it does suck that we have to put in more effort to get where we want, but in the end, we’ll be much stronger from it.

What were some of your biggest struggles in college?


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