A Shot At The “American Dream:” Experiences From First-Generation College Students

By: Noelle Larino

Photos: Pexels

On November 8, 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965 was signed into law, opening the gateway for low income students to attend college. As part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, the act established federal grants and loans to help students finance their educations. For many students, this would be the first time anyone in their family has ever attended college.

Today, the Higher Education Act continues to impact students. Students who are the first in their families to attend college are now commonly referred to as “first-generation” or “first- gen” college students. From challenges to navigating through college to family pressures, first- generation college students offer unique perspectives on the college experience.

Allan Martinez, a first-generation junior Animal Science major at UC Davis explains what it means to be the first in his family to attend college. “Being a first-generation college student means that I provide hope to others who see college as a privilege. In my case specifically, my parents made a great deal of sacrifices to provide my sister and I a shot at the American Dream.”

Simply put, for Monica Barrera, a junior pre-med biology major at Marymount University, being a first-generation college student “means having a lot of responsibility and being proud of it.”

Being a first-generation has different meanings for each student. But, the formal definition of a first-generation college student is a student whose parents did not complete a four year college degree. However, this definition varies depending on the institution.

At Marymount University, a first-generation college student is a student who does not have any “prior exposure to navigating higher institutions,” according to a University pamphlet.  At Marymount, a first-generation student may be a student whose parents attended a four year college outside of the U.S or a student who is simply not familiar with college culture.

A significant portion of the student body identifies as first-generation at Marymount University. According to a University pamphlet, there are currently 506 undergraduate and 112 graduate first-generation students attending Marymount. The experiences of first-generation college students at Marymount are often more challenging than non-first-generation college students, especially when it comes to the college process.

According to Marymount first-generation, senior Biology major Odaris Santos, “The whole process of going to college, including the application process, the transcripts, the letter of recommendation, is difficult for first-generation college students to navigate.” Then, when college actually comes, it gets more difficult.” This is not only a concern for first-generation college students at Marymount. First generation students from across the nation encounter similar challenges to navigating the college process.

“Non-first-generation students have their parents, friends, and acquaintances to ask for college advice, how the process of college works, and other essential resources. For me, I had to discover and learn these resources first-hand alone. My parents were unable to provide me with any insight on how to apply, how FAFSA works, how college works, etc.,” says Martinez.

In addition to overcoming the challenges of college applications, forms, and documents, college students face an internal challenge: pressure. For Karen Adjei, a recent first-generation graduate from Northwestern University, pressure was a primary stressor. “There is always pressure to be grateful, to be the best, and to take care of those around you who may rely on you as a provider or caretaker,” says Adjei.

For many students, this pressure also comes from their families. According to Barrera,  “If you mess up one little thing, it can lead to the entire family judging you for it and, at times, makes you feel like you’re not doing enough even when you give it your all.”

Martinez expressed similar concerns: “I feel somewhat pressured. So far, I am the only individual attending college in my entire family, and they’re all looking up to me as they prepare to endure the obstacles college throws their way. My parents are spending tens of thousands of dollars to provide me an opportunity to get a degree, so I need to make the most of it.”

To help first-generation students overcome the challenge of entering college, organizations have been established nationwide. One of these organizations is the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). The COE, created in 1981, works with universities and colleges to help first generation college students enter and successfully navigate higher education.

On a national level, the COE helps students through Federal Trio Programs. Funded by COE, Federal Trio Programs offer counseling services in applying for financial aid, finding careers, and applying for college. These services are geared to help first generation students overcome personal and financial obstacles.

The COE provides aid to first-generation college students beyond technical support. The organization raises awareness to the first-generation student community on college campuses. According to COE President Maureen Hoyler,“we aim to help colleges reach out to communities who may not think they are college material or might not think it is an option for them.”

The COE has worked previously with Marymount University to create awareness of the first-generation college experience on campus. Last year, on First-Generation College Celebration Day, Hoyler visited Marymount. During her visit, a group of students and faculty formed a panel discussion with Hoyler to discuss the challenges facing first generation students. Hoyler says “events like these gives students a voice and reminds them that they are not alone.”

Although the panel was meant to raise awareness of the first-generation student population at Marymount, some students feel that the University lacks support for first- generation students. According to Santos, “It’s really bad. I know Marymount reaches out to International students and to different populations. But, first-generation college students are not a population that Marymount targets at all.”

Another student expressed the same sentiments. When asked if Marymount successfully reaches out to first-generation college students, Barrera said, “Personally no. I have never heard or seen any information MU has put out about first-generation college students.”

Despite the lack of initiative for Marymount to be inclusive of first-generation college students on campus, other universities have implemented programs to support first-generation college students. “My university does outreach to first-generation students. UC Davis is known for helping out students who classify as first-generation, undocumented, and other minority labels. There are professors that know the hardships, trials, and tribulations of being a first-generation student. They want to be able to help other kids who view attending college as impossible,” says Martinez.

Another non-Marymount student explained the programs her school uses to help first-generation college students. “Northwestern tries to reach out by partnering with different scholarship programs and doing initiatives with local residents,” says Adjei. But, as Adjei also notes, “There is always room for improvement.”

The need for improvement was a common sentiment among first-generation college students at Marymount. Currently, the University has a billboard located in Gerard Hall dedicated to first-generation college students. In addition, the University issued a pamphlet that provides a list of campus resources for first-generation college students and tips to help them succeed.

Despite these initiatives, the first-generation student population at Marymount seeks more support from the University. First-generation college students provide some tips for how the University can create a support system for this community. Barrera suggests that Marymount “Offer meetings or information sessions on financial aid, what to do and where to go for your specific career.”

In addition to career and financial help, students suggested interactive programs to engage the entire campus with the first generation community. “Panel discussions are always a good way to help first-gen voices to be heard on campus. Also, mentor-mentee programs could help first generation students to connect because we are not really united in a community at Marymount,” says Santos.

Another student expressed other possibilities for colleges who struggle to build a support system for first-generation students. Martinez said “For those colleges lacking in inclusivity of first-generation college students, they can provide workshops, conferences, and clubs to help enrich their college experience.”

Although Marymount offers services to first-generation students and are inclusive of this community on campus, the University falls short in actively engaging first-generation students on campus. First-generation students are frustrated with the lack of support that Marymount provides to the community. Yet, first-generation students offer a range of initiatives that can help the University build a supportive community for first-generations.

In the future, there are likely first-generation college students to come. Current students offer technical advice for these students to come. “Find programs or meetings where someone can guide you on all the financial aid options, scholarships, career planning, etc because we more than likely do not have a family member who can tell us what major we need to do for the field we want,” says Barrera.

Another student offers advice to first-generation students who may struggle to pay the expensive price of tuition at universities. “My advice is going to community college first. Not only are thousands of dollars being saved, but transferring is a lot easier than applying as a freshman. The foundations of college are met, as well as being exposed to other opportunities, such as Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for community colleges,” Martinez says.

While some students offered technical devices for future first-generation college students, others offered emotional support. “Make the most out of every opportunity and try out everything, and also take time for yourself and well-being; don’t be so hard on yourself, and community is key!,” says Adjei.

In sum, first-generation college students provide a unique perspective to the college experience. As part of the first-generation experience, students overcome obstacles in navigating college and dealing with family pressure. From these experiences, first-generation college students see ways that their institutions can improve in order to become inclusive.

As first-generation college students continue to enter institutions, new initiatives are being brought to universities to celebrate the achievements of this community. These initiatives start at a national and local level as organizations collaborate to bring a voice to this growing community.

Finally, first-generation college students are a community. Many of them feel the same pressures to achieve the “American Dream” by being successful in college and in future career paths. Yet, these students go forth with pride in fulfilling their dreams. Further, they are setting the path for future first-generation college students to come.



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