Navigating the Collegiate Atmosphere as a First-Generation Student

By Linda Zheng & Dakota Leget

As a first-generation college student, it’s easy to feel disadvantaged or overwhelmed going into and throughout your college career. If you compare yourself to your peers, you may feel “behind” – perhaps in terms of professional, academic, and financial resources. This is a common experience for first-generation students, especially as many also identify with other disadvantaged groups (e.g., low socioeconomic status, underserved, underrepresented; Choy, 2001). We, like some of you, resonated with these feelings. Although there are obstacles as a first-generation student, there are also resources to help you navigate your college experience and upsides to embracing your first-generation college student status.

It’s common to be a first-generation student.

In terms of undergraduate students: The Center for First-Generation Student Success reports data from the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study which found that 56% of undergraduates nationally were first-generation college students, and 59% of these students were also the first sibling in the family to go to college!

Utilize services and resources to your advantage

There are organizations and programs to help you achieve success. Some common ones include Federal Work-Study and TRIO Programs (e.g., McNair Scholars Program, Student Support Services). First-generation students are often disproportionately lower-income than continuing-generation students (Tym et al., 2004). In our experiences, on-campus jobs were a great experience and allowed us flexibility with school commitments. Your college may also have other organizations and programs, such as a first-generation college students’ organization, which may facilitate friendships and normalize your feelings and experiences.

Asking for help demonstrates initiative

Another vital aspect of academic and professional success includes mentorship. Mentors can come in all forms—academic advisors, professors, bosses, and even other students. First-generation students may feel overwhelmed about how to achieve academic and professional success, especially due to feeling a lack of professional connections or lack of knowledge on how college “works”. Mentorship is important because it creates professional relationships and networking opportunities to prepare for your career. Often, mentors can offer invaluable insight into this process and aid first-generation students in forming professional connections. Though it may seem intimidating, sit down with an academic advisor and ask them about how you can prepare for your career—including activities outside of school (e.g., research, internships). Mentorship increases preparedness for your next step; it also helps you build strong professional relationships. Mentors may know of opportunities or positions they can connect you with once they know your long-term goals. We feel that asking for help or advice demonstrates initiative and courage. Whether you are in your graduate, undergraduate, or professional career, you will benefit from developing a relationship with someone you can consider a mentor.

Ultimately, we are thankful for being first-generation students. Our bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees (in-process) feel bigger than just us. They represent our parents’ struggles and sacrifices to offer us more opportunities; these serve as inspiration and motivation in our academic and professional pursuits. Being a first-generation college student comes with additional obstacles. However, it can also lead to greater appreciation and value for higher education. It’s easy to feel disadvantaged when entering college as a first-generation student; you are not alone. There are other students in your position, mentors by your side, and programs designed to help you achieve success. As Dr. Abdul Kalam once said, “If you fail, never give up because F.A.I.L. means ‘First Attempt In Learning’.”

We would love to hear about how you embrace your first-generation student status!


Choy, S. (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment (NCES 2001-126). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Martin Lohfink, M., & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 409–428.

Tym, C., McMillion, R., Barone, S., & Webster, J. (2004). First-generation college students: A literature review. Round Rock, TX: Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation.

Linda Zheng (she/her) is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Psychological Science program (Clinical-Counseling track) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her current interests include interpersonal violence, trauma, and mind-body interventions. She is currently leading a research project examining maladaptive interpersonal schemas and coping responses in children receiving services at a community child advocacy center. In the future, she desires to work with underserved, underrepresented, and economically disadvantaged individuals.

Dakota Leget (she/her) is a first-year graduate student in the University of Minnesota Duluth Master of Arts in Psychological Science program (Clinical-Counseling track). She is dedicated to building a more inclusive future for heavier-weighted folks which is why her research interests include weight stigma, internalized weight bias, coping, and self-determination theory. In addition to research and studies, Dakota enjoys staying active, reading, cooking, advocating for equity, and cuddling with her cat, Poppers. Dakota’s future career goals include working with individuals with eating disorders, people with trauma, and members of the LGBTPQIA+ community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s