Supporting the Needs of First Generation College Students


As a new wave of college students embarks on their higher education journey, the emotions of excitement and potential blend with the challenges faced by the "First and Onlys" - those pioneering their family's journey into higher education.

National First-Generation College Celebration Day on November 8 serves as a reminder of the unique hurdles faced by this significant demographic, constituting one-third of all U.S. college students.

First Generation College Students Need Better Financial and Mental Health Support
(Photo : UNSPLASH / Jason Goodman`)

The author shares a personal narrative from their freshman orientation in 1997, highlighting the overwhelming experience of being the first in the family to attend college. The absence of a familial blueprint and the lack of preparation for the emotional toll of navigating higher education underscore the struggles faced by millions of first-generation students.

Disparities in Criteria of Defining First-Generation

The article sheds light on the diverse criteria used to define first-generation students, with discrepancies among institutions even within the same state. While the University of California system considers those without a parent with a bachelor's degree as first-gen, community colleges in California take a broader stance, including those whose parents never attended college.
A recent report from CalMatters emphasizes the need for a more uniform and inclusive definition, as varying interpretations can impact institutions' ability to provide meaningful support.

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The Emotional Cost of Social and Economic Mobility

Drawing on personal experiences and insights from the book "FIRST GEN," the author discusses the emotional toll associated with being a first-generation student. The term "Trailblazer Toll" encapsulates the emotional cost of social and economic mobility, a facet often overlooked amid the pride of breaking barriers.

A national poll commissioned by the author reveals the isolating and traumatizing aspects of the first-gen student experience. A staggering 65% of respondents acknowledge a negative impact on their emotional and mental health during the college journey, with financial trauma and loneliness identified as major contributors.

Challenges Beyond Imposter Syndrome

Contrary to common assumptions about imposter syndrome, the primary challenges faced by first-generation students extend beyond self-doubt. Financial trauma emerges as a significant concern, affecting 33% of respondents, followed by loneliness or isolation, impacting 23%. The survey emphasizes the financial insecurities faced by first-gen students, with nearly half coming from households earning less than $50,000 annually, and 82% juggling part- or full-time jobs while in college.

The Importance of Mental Health Support

The article advocates for a more comprehensive approach to supporting first-generation students, focusing on mental health resources as a crucial component. The survey reveals that mental health support is prioritized over academic assistance by first-gen students. The prevalence of financial insecurity and isolation underscores the need for integrated and culturally competent therapeutic support within higher education institutions.

A Call for Holistic Support Programs

The author encourages the establishment of first-gen programs that go beyond traditional retention initiatives. Recognizing the multifaceted challenges faced by these students, the article calls for access to dedicated mental health resources, culturally competent therapeutic support, and guidance on practical skills like resume building and interview preparation.
Reflecting on personal experiences, the author highlights the potential impact of easily accessible mental health resources on easing the transition into college and improving graduation rates for first-generation students.

Rethinking Success for First and Onlys

The article challenges the conventional notion of success for first-generation students. It emphasizes that getting into a prestigious college is not the ultimate measure of success; staying there and overcoming the emotional toll of being a trailblazer defines success for the "First and Onlys." The call to better support first-gen students extends beyond the academic realm, urging a holistic approach that addresses financial trauma, isolation, and mental health challenges. As the nation grapples with issues of equity and inclusivity, investing in the economic mobility of first-generation students emerges as a crucial step in shrinking the wealth gap.

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