6 Lessons I Learned From Being a First-Generation College Student

Being a first-generation college student isn’t easy. From navigating campus life to meeting your own — and your family’s — expectations, there’s a lot to be aware of when embarking on the college journey for the first time. I currently work with students of diverse backgrounds to help them feel confident and empowered; because we all deserve to feel excited about our college experience, especially if you’re the first in your family to pave the way.

Here are six things I learned from being a first-generation college student that may resonate with you, too. And if you’re an educator who works with first-gen students, here are some themes to look out for when considering how to best show up for your community.

1) Community matters.
On my first day of college, I recall being excited about the possibilities, but also overwhelmed: how would I make friends? Would I keep in touch with friends from high school? Would I feel lonely in a sea of thousands of people? What would it be like moving out of my family’s house? If any of these thoughts sound familiar, trust that you’re not alone. Whether you’re going to school 10 minutes from home or moving to a new state or country for college, trust that your community is out there waiting for you, even if it takes time to build. I recommend pursuing activities you enjoy, whether it’s photography, beekeeping, math, or anything in between, and your community will naturally follow. 

2) Establishing independence can be tough.
Many first-gen students have naturally had to overcome challenges on their own, often making them excellent independent problem-solvers. Many students are also like myself, where they arrive on campus and realize they haven’t made many decisions without consulting their entire family first! While there isn’t one “right” or “wrong” way to be, independence can be a tricky topic for many first-gen students, whether they’re navigating how often to call home or deciding whether or not to pursue an internship. If you’re an educator, know that your students may need extra support in this area; it may even be helpful to host a conversation about what it looks like to establish independence in college.

3) Being resourceful pays off!
Of the many things that first-generation students are amazing at, it’s being resourceful! Generally, we understand the value of a great opportunity and know-how to use resources to our advantage. If you’re a student, know that resourcefulness is a fabulous strength to have in college! The next time you’re seeking an opportunity, ask yourself: who is in your existing network that can help? Who can you send an email to? What resources are available to you on campus that you may not be aware of yet? Utilize your resources, always say thank you, and I promise, good things will come your way.

4) Don’t be afraid to try new things.
I recall being so excited about all of the new opportunities in college that I tried nearly every activity possible: a cappella, musical theater, research, study abroad, and even ballroom dancing (which, I discovered, was not my strength). If you’re a first-gen student, I know how overwhelming it can be to find where you “fit” in college. My best advice? Start by starting. It’s okay to put yourself out there, get comfortable being uncomfortable, and sample different activities until you find something you enjoy! And if you don’t feel aligned with a particular thing, there’s no pressure to do it. College is about finding what works for you.

5) It’s okay to ask for help.
If you’re a first-gen student, chances are, you’re used to carving out a path on your own. During college, I was the exact same way — I wanted to achieve everything 100% on my own, and I rarely asked for help. However, I’m here to remind you that asking for help doesn’t make you “weak” or incapable. In fact, it can make you stronger. Whether you’re feeling stressed, need help managing your coursework, or simply need someone to talk to, there are people who want to help you succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — it can feel vulnerable, but it’s worth it.

6) You are not alone.
As a mental health and wellness educator, I return to this phrase time and time again. It’s simple but true: you are not alone. Whether you’re trying to make friends, navigating a new relationship, or simply trying to stay afloat amidst busy college life, know that others are going through the exact same pivotal moments. You are not alone in your experience, and we all deal with hurdles throughout the college journey, including your peers whose parents did attend college.

These are just a few of the unique lessons I’ve learned as a first-generation college student, and perhaps they’ll resonate with you, too. Each lesson has continued to guide me throughout graduate school, navigating my career, and now as a mental health and wellness speaker who helps students overcome challenges and feel confident in who they are.

Whether you’re a first-generation college student or educator, these are lessons we can all relate to. As you gear up for a new semester, take a deep breath, believe in yourself, and remember: there are people who want to see you win, including me. Hold your head high and be proud of yourself. I’m rooting for you!