On Being a First-Generation College Student

In sociology, we often use the terms "micro-sociology" and "macro-sociology." Micro means the individual perspective and macro means the bigger picture, the institutional perspective. No doubt, being a first-generation college student is a grand achievement. It is the beginning of a legacy in one's family. On a macro perspective, first-generation college students will not only have the advantage of earning more income than their parents, but they will also open doors for their future children. I absolutely agree with all of the above, and statistically, this has been proven to be true. I do not wish to expand on the vast literature on the subject of first-generation college students but rather take the micro-sociological perspective of what it feels like to be one. The truth is as rewarding as the destination can be, the journey there is a hard one for most of us.

A big advantage to students who have parents that attended college is information. Most likely the parents have the knowledge and guidance to give their children instruction to applying for college and financial aid. Students who come from families that have generations attending a particular university have an even greater advantage. It is true that who you know is the most important factor in gaining opportunity in this world. My mother only attended the equivalent to middle school in Mexico and later took her GED when she moved to the states. My father went straight into the Air Force after graduating from high school. My mother had no idea how to even apply to colleges when my senior year rolled around. Had it not been for my teachers, I would have missed the deadline for FAFSA, the Common Application that is exclusive to Texas schools, and many other components to applying. Another critical component to one's application are the ACT and SAT scores. Programs like the Princeton Review that specialize in test prep are not easy on the wallet and the classes still require the student to have some level of previous knowledge. Learning is not exclusive to teaching, so is life at home. It is easy to see how many students who are not first generation college students do better on average when they have the best resource there is—their parents. The frustration of not knowing how to prepare for college, even less sign up to attend one, is a common dilemma that I faced when deciding to attend college. It wasn't that we didn't have family support (which sadly, some students lack), but rather that our families simply did not know how to help us.

Once the process was done and I made it into college, alongside the excitement was the guilt. Family is very important in my culture, and usually we stay within close proximity of each other. Leaving for college meant breaking that tradition and embarking on a different path. The psychological stress of being away from home is an issue many first-generation college students deal with. Homesickness is heightened with the unfamiliarity of college environment and a deep sense of loneliness. Because I had already excelled by going to college, I was also expected to make it through successfully. For me, that meant hiding when my grades were suffering or covering up how hard classes were during family talks over the holidays. I knew my family members could not relate to my stress and had no idea what it was actually took to get through college. I remember going back to a college friend's hometown and her father reliving back when he was in college and being completely understanding about the struggles my friend was facing. I knew that was a conversation I could never have with my mother, her life experience had been completely different.

Applying and getting into college were easier compared to actually finding the resources needed to succeed in college. I was not familiar with all the different programs attached to majors and certificates that could be taken alongside a degree. Although we are each assigned a counselor, meetings with them were usually wide and spread apart. Good counselors are like finding good professors, sometimes you get them and sometimes you don't. A lot of one's success in college is due to one’s own hard work and determination to find the answers. The problem sometimes one faces is not knowing enough to ask the right questions. I discovered my perfect major and school organizations in my last year of college. I was already close to graduating and in no financial position to tag on another three years of schooling. I remember thinking, had I known these programs existed as a freshman, I would have headed in the right direction. So many opportunities and so much potential can slip through the cracks when there is not a solid point of reference or guidance. Navigating through the waters of college when you were not expected to even attend in the first place is perhaps the most difficult part.

All the challenges, hard times, and pretense put on to not worry family only added to the accomplishment of graduating college. As in other facets of life where one works tirelessly towards a goal, reaching it only makes it that much sweeter. Now, more than ever, people are being educated and going to college for the first time. The help by scholarship funds, companies, school programs, and alumni associations is growing as more people attend college. I believe these are the tools we need to invest in. Much of my success is due to the AVID program in high school that prepared me for the college process. The Longhorn Scholars Program at the University of Texas at Austin assisted me in picking classes and being on track for graduation. These are the programs that are of high importance, they also introduced me to students with a similar background as mine. I would not change my circumstances—despite the difficulties, I accomplished what I was unsure I would ever be able to.