Being a first generation college student poses a lot of challenges, from the process of applying to adjusting when you actually get there. College for a first generation college student is set up as this ideal of success put into your head by your parents who weren’t able to go themselves. As a first generation college student, you quickly realize that going to college is more than just for yourself, it’s for your family. The stakes are high as your parents live out their dreams through you.
*Disclaimer: Along with being a first generation college student, I am also the child of immigrants, being the first generation born in the United States, so for me this whole process of applying and adjusting was a bit more amplified.
The process of getting into a good college started way before my senior year of high school. I’d say it actually started my freshman year. The need to do well in school was always on my mind: get good grades and build up an academic and extracurricular resume that will hold up against students that came from a higher level of education household. I joined JROTC, yearbook, cultural clubs, school publications, played an instrument, did volunteer work, tried out for sports, basically anything to beef up my college application. In my head, I had a lot to prove. I had to show college admissions that even though my parents didn’t get their college degrees, I was just as smart and talented as students whose parents went to college and probably had more opportunities because their parents made more money than mine.
You may also be thinking that I had tiger parents, who made education my 24/7 job, always pushing me academically, but in reality it was quite the opposite. When I met others who, like me, were part of the first generation college student group, I realized that most of us were self-driven and extremely ambitious. It has been ingrained in us to do well, not only for ourselves or our parents, but for our future and wanting to provide better opportunities for the hypothetical family we may have one day. In a way, we need to do well out of survival.
The dreaded college applications
High schoolers start applying to college in their senior year with research probably starting in junior year and the summer before senior. Applying to colleges as a first gen can be difficult, especially when you have no idea where to apply or how the applications even work. To be honest, it was a lot of trial and error, especially when it came to applying for FAFSA to qualify for financial aid. But like any first gen, I worked through it until I found a way.
For the college search, you may only know a select few: colleges that are close to where you live or the elite Ivy Leagues that seem almost impossible to get into. You don’t know much about the in-between and whether or not a college may be a good fit for you. Luckily, I had access to a college counselor, who knew my learning style, my wants and needs, and helped me narrow down my college search. But if you don’t have access to this, you can talk to teachers or aunts and uncles who are in a field of work similar to your interests. You can even ask your peers where they’re applying and why. Or if all else fails, Google it. Literally, type in on the internet “Colleges known for ____” (whatever you’re interested in, whether it be STEM related or humanities). Ironically, this is how I came across the college that I actually ended up attending.
Treading unknown territory
After receiving your first college acceptance letter and submitting a deposit to your future alma mater, a wave of accomplishment, relief and joy washes over you. You live in a state of bliss until summer rolls along and the need to start planning and actually doing these things creates new stress. Figuring out how to pay for college, dorm selection, registering for classes and practically figuring out how to pack up and ship, drive or carry all of your belongings on an airplane to your college destination, fills your mind. Planning all of this was even more difficult because I couldn’t really ask my parents for help. They were as clueless as I was. As a first generation college student, you are pretty much walking blindly into this whole college experience without having anyone who knows you like your parents to guide you. It’s hard to ask them for advice when they themselves don’t really know what it’s like to be in college. My parents definitely tried their best to help me and I’m thankful for that but at some point, college just becomes this unknown territory that you must enter alone in hopes that you can get through it with little to no damage.
Being away from home
If you’re crazy like me and decide to move across the country to go to college (I moved from Hawaii to Boston), you will experience a culture shock. For me, I went from living in a place where white is the minority to where white is the majority. Let’s just say, going to college was when I realized what the color of my skin meant. Besides missing my parents and my home, the one thing I probably missed the most was the food and the people. It’s hard to explain and I won’t get into it but the feeling of “aloha” is definitely lacking in the mainland, but of course, this is why I moved so far away in the first place, to experience something different.
On top of this culture shock, being in a different place and living with people you have never met before is intimidating. There’s the fear that you will be alone and have no friends, but this isn’t the case. For the most part, college is a place where you can meet people who have the same interests and values as you. I mean, out of all the colleges in the world, you all ended up choosing to attend this specific one, so there has to be someone out there you can relate to. One of the most important things I learned in my first weeks of college is to simply be open-minded. Be open to meeting new people, especially people you don’t expect would become your friends, they might surprise you. Also, don’t be afraid to be yourself. Yes, you’ve probably heard it a million times and it’s easier said than done, but I’m going to say it again, just be you.
Trying to fit in should be the least of your worries as you are already trying to live on your own for probably the first time in your life. In college, you don’t have anybody telling you what to do. This is both good and bad because now you have the freedom to do whatever you want, but it also comes with responsibility. You now have to clean up after yourself, do your laundry and find time to eat food, which isn’t always easy when your dining hall doesn’t have the most appetizing or healthy food. But besides all of this, college is a stepping stone towards adulting in the real world.
Making it work
Looking back on it, I got through my first year of college, pretty much unscathed. It was kind of difficult at first, adjusting to living with a roommate, being in a new city and balancing work and play. But once I got into the rhythm of everything, college was actually really great. As time passes, you get into a routine of waking up, doing work, finding time to explore and chill out, eat, do laundry and of course sleep. Homesickness begins to fade and next thing you know, you start calling your dorm “home.” I think I owe a lot of this relatively smooth transition to my roommates. I was so lucky to live with such amazing people who I am glad to call my friends. They kept me busy, motivated and made me feel at home. I will definitely keep our adventurous and momentous memories for years to come. They are what I look forward to when I return to college in the fall.
Before I end this, I would like to leave you with a piece of advice, and this is for anyone going away for college, not just if you’re a first generation college student. A good friend of mine and mentor of some sorts once told me, “Please when you are feeling like you want to come home, know why you are there. Know your end goal.” This statement is probably the one thing that helped me get through it all. It’s what I tell myself when I’m in a rut, when I’m stressed out or when I need inspiration. Thinking about why I’m in college and what I want to get out of it, pushes me to never give up and keep striving for success. And without the love, support and sacrifices my parents made, I would never be where and who I am today without them. For all of this, I thank my parents with my entire being and hope that one day I will make them proud because this isn’t just for me, it’s also for them.