Being the first person in your family to attend college is a huge accomplishment and one that should be celebrated. But while it’s an exciting time, first-generation college students face a unique set of challenges not presented to their peers. First-generation college students make up around 20 percent of the 7.3 million undergraduate college students in the United States.
In some families, the student heading off to college is not supported by their parents. They may see their child pursuing higher education as a threat to them, or as though their child is saying they’re better than their parents. Parents may see their child’s desire for upward mobility as a rejection of them and their background.
These students also suffer from what’s often referred to as “breakaway guilt.” Students feel as though they’ve abandoned their families by attending college, which may be far away. This guilt is especially high in students from families where parents struggle with speaking English. Often, the student serves as the sole speaker for their family and may feel as though they’ve left their parents without an advocate.
Around 50 percent of first-generation college students in the United States come from low-income families. This presents another set of hurdles these students need to overcome. While there is government assistance for students attending college, filling out the FAFSA for the first time is incredibly difficult, especially if your parents don’t fluently speak the language. Students from low-income families may also struggle to afford the supplies needed for college, like a laptop and textbooks.
First-generation college students have a higher level of pressure for success than other students. 69 percent of first-generation students are attending college to help their families. They may feel an obligation to be the person who helps break their family out of poverty. This pressure may cause them to have higher levels of anxiety or depression if their academic performance is not what their parents expect.
First-generation college students may feel as they don’t belong at college, but also at home once they return. Because first-generation students are usually the minority on a college campus, they may feel as though no one understands their struggles. This can especially be felt at colleges with a large student body that comes from economically privileged families. When these students return home, they may no longer feel as though they fit in with their family because of their education.
Encouraging first-generation students to attend college is essential, but it can be difficult to convince them the challenges are worth it. A strong support system is necessary to help the student succeed and earn their degree, which will set them up for greater success in the future.