Some students entering college this fall have prepared their entire lives. But first-generation students, the first in their family to attend college, will leave their known world behind, with little idea of what to expect.
About a decade ago, I was one of these students. Neither of my parents went to college, and my father (despite being one of the smartest people I know) never finished high school. I stumbled my way through four years at MIT, figuring things out as I went, usually by making mistakes. Now I’m back at MIT as a staff researcher, and last year I had the opportunity to serve as an alumni mentor for MIT’s First Generation Project. I was delighted to find that I was able to help some bright young students by sharing my hard-learned lessons. I was also surprised at how common many of the experiences I had were. So I’d like to share those experiences and lessons here in the hopes that they’ll help current first-gen students, and help everyone understand us a little better.
Navigating the College Environment
College culture is very different from the environments–often minority, working-class, and/or immigrant–that first-gen students are used to. The most common adjustment for first-gen students is learning to ask for help! That can be difficult to do when you’re not used to there being anyone to go to. When I was growing up, I learned that asking for help made people do whatever they could to get me to go away. They had their own problems, they didn’t need to deal with mine too. In college, it was a huge revelation that people would not only help me, but be happy to do it (with occasional exceptions). Colleges want their students to succeed! Getting help means talking to peers and professors, studying in groups, going to office hours, asking questions in class, and seeking out resources for counseling or student life issues when needed. Another revelation was that I didn’t need a specific ask. I could go to someone with a problem, and they would help me figure out how to solve it–probably better than I could have on my own. Just as important as asking, is learning not to feel guilty for needing help, instead feeling and expressing gratitude.
Mentorship is one of the most powerful types of help you can seek. The realities of college life can be very different from official policies. Trying to navigate college life by-the-book is often an exercise in frustration, bureaucracy, and confusion unless you’ve learned to read between the lines. A good mentor can help. Mentors are also key for learning what you don’t know you don’t know. An ideal mentor is someone who looks like the kind of person you’d like to grow into. They’ve no doubt learned a lot along the way. They can help you avoid obstacles and direct you towards resources you never knew existed. Finding good mentors can be easier said than done, but the first step is learning to reach out to more experienced people who share your interests and passions.
First-gen students also face a sense of isolation. When you’re a part of two very different worlds, you never quite fit in anywhere. The good news is: that’s OK. It’s more important to become comfortable with yourself than it is to try to fit a mold. A mostly-empty dorm can feel particularly lonely when it seems like everyone has flown home for a long weekend, but you couldn’t afford to. But you’re often not as alone as it seems, and it’s important to find people you can relate to, who you feel comfortable around. For me, this was living in the beautifully dilapidated, graffiti-covered Bexley Hall. And with many colleges now offering first-gen programs, it’s increasingly easier to meet students with similar expereinces. On the flipside, it’s important to venture out of your comfort zone, to fully take advantage everything your new environment has to offer. One thing that helps is to remember that even when you feel like an outsider, it doesn’t necessarily mean others see you that way. You probably have a unique perspective to offer, and if they’re wise, they’ll appreciate that. Similarly, it can be tough to find yourself judged against people who have had more opportunities than you, but instead of resenting it, it’s wise to learn from the unique perspective that they have.
If you’re the first in your family to go to college, chances are you’re paying your tuition with debt, and you won’t have much pocket change. There isn’t much you can do about that, but a few practical tips can make the financial squeeze a little more bearable. Student discounts are everywhere, especially in college towns, so always make sure to ask. Similarly, the Student Advantage card or a AAA membership can easily pay for themselves with discounts on travel and other purchases.
You’ll start getting credit card offers. The only cards you should consider are ones with no fee that offer cash back rewards (usually from 1-5%). If you do get one, never carry a balance. Never put more on it than you have in your checking account, and set a reminder for yourself to pay it off twice per month.
Textbooks are expensive. My textbook collection is still the most costly thing I own, and I’ve gotten rid of most of them! If you can, borrow your books from friends who have taken the class. Otherwise, rent or buy used books, and sell them as soon as you’re done with the class– the resale value drops quickly, especially if a new edition comes out.
Saving money is important, but one of the hardest things for a cash-strapped first-gen student to learn is that sometimes it’s better to spend it. A good rule of thumb is to spend extra money on things that will last a long time, and that will improve your life on a daily basis. That could be anything from a comfortable mattress, to bonding with a group of friends over dinner.
The purpose of college is self-improvement, which requires a certain amount of self-centeredness. That can put first-gen students in a bind. Less privileged families are disproportionately affected by things like unemployment, physical and mental health issues, and incarceration. First-gen students can face an incredible amount of guilt for focusing on their studies while their families struggle. Trying to help your family and succeed in college can feel like you’re simultaneously playing two games with different rules, and you need to make the right moves to win both. The difficult truth is that, in most cases, focusing on your studies is better in the long run than letting them take the back seat while you help your family. As the cliché goes, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help anyone else.
I’ve personally struggled to find a balance obligations to myself and to my family, and over many years, I’ve settled on some guidelines that I’ve found helpful. For college students, earning potential is low and money is often more limited than time, so financial help is usually not the most efficient form. If you do need to help your family financially, make gifts, not loans. Counting on getting money back can set you up for catastrophes that are both financially and emotionally costly.
As an alternative to money, emotional support can be incredibly powerful, and the positive, thriving atmosphere of college can put you in a great position to offer it. Colleges usually offer great support and counseling for students, and by leveraging that to take better care of yourself, you can help provide a sense of stability and security to your family. You can also help your family in other non-monetary ways. For instance, if they need a new car, you could see whether anyone in your college network knows someone selling one for a good price.
Unfortunately, well-intentioned help can become unbalanced and unhealthy, so it’s important to develop strong boundaries. One rule of thumb is that if someone is capable of doing something themselves, doing it with them is ok, but doing it for them is not. Another good guideline is not to assume the consequences of anyone else’s decisions or actions. It can be incredibly hard to stick to these boundaries when people you love need help. Offering empathy and emotional support is often a good alternative. As a final thought, sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do to help. When that’s the case, remember that someday, you’ll be in a better position, and even though you can’t go back in time, you’ll be able to pay it forward and offer that help to your own friends, children, and mentees.