TRiO Pathways to Success

Being First Generation

What does it mean to be a first-generation college student?

The U.S. Department of Education defines “first generation” as undergraduates whose parents never enrolled or completed postsecondary education in the United States.  As a Pathways to Success student, you can count yourself amongst a league of extraordinary first-gen scholars. Your perseverance, resilience, resourcefulness, and hard work have brought you to Lehman College, a first step towards advancing your academic, personal and professional goals.

In a June 1998 report published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 98-082) that examined the postsecondary experiences and outcomes of first-generation students compared to their peers, first-generation students shared the following characteristics:

  • First-gen students were more likely to be older, have lower incomes, be married, and have dependents than their non-first-generation peers.
  • First-gen students were more likely to enroll in postsecondary education part-time, and to attend public 2-year institutions; private, for-profit institutions; and other less-than-4-year institutions than their non-first-generation counterparts.
  • First-gen students were equally as likely to be taking remedial classes as non-first-generation students when they began their postsecondary education. However, there were differences by sector on this measure. At private, not-for-profit 4-year institutions, first-generation students were more likely to be taking remedial courses than their counterparts whose parents had more than a high school education. At the same time, the proportions of first-generation non-first-generation students at public 4-year and public 2-year institutions taking remedial coursework did not differ significantly.
  • First-gen students were more likely than non-first-generation students to say that being very well off financially and providing their children with better opportunities than they had were very important to them personally.
  • First-gen students were more likely to say that obtaining the amount of financial aid they needed, being able to complete coursework more quickly, being able to live at home, and being able to work while attending school were very important influences in their decision to attend their particular postsecondary institution.
  • First-gen students persisted in postsecondary education and attained credentials at lower rates then their non-first-generation counterparts. This finding held for students at 4-year institutions and public 2-year institutions.
  • If first-generation students attained bachelor's or associate's degrees, they earned comparable salaries and were employed in similar occupations as their non-first-generation peers.
  • Even when controlling for many of the characteristics that distinguished them from their peers, such as socioeconomic status, institution type, and attendance status, first-generation student status still had a negative effect on persistence and attainment.

Am I “college material”?

Many first-gen students may find it challenging to feel connected socially and academically to their peers and college environment and may experience a full range of emotions:

  • Excitement and Anxiety – Many first-gen students may feel excited to embark on a new journey, but despite good grades, may ask themselves, “Am I cut out to be a college student?”
  • Responsibility – Many first-generation students have to help pay for their own education as a result of often lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition to financial responsibility, first-gen students may receive mixed messages from family and friends about their changing identities (e.g., wanting to succeed, but not wanting to be different from the rest of the family or their peers).
  • Pride – Do you feel an overwhelming sense of pride about being the first in their families to attend and complete college? You should! A college degree can provide many opportunities. This is an important accomplishment, so do give yourself the credit you deserve.
  • Guilt – In addition to pride, many first-generation students may feel guilt about having the opportunity to attend college while others in the family may not have had the same opportunity. These students may wonder if it is fair for them to be at school while their parents struggle financially to keep them there. They may feel the need to work to support their families. First-generation students may also feel guilty about their academic performance if it is not as good as they or their families would like.
  • Embarrassment and Shame – These students may feel embarrassment over their socioeconomic status or the level of education in their family and may outwardly hide this fact from their peers. There may be embarrassment around being different from their peers at college, particularly if their peers have a long lineage of family members attending college or if they seem to know the ‘lingo’ when a first-generation student may not.
  • Confusion - First-generation students may feel ‘out of the loop’ when it comes to college processes and procedures such as application, graduation, job or graduate school searches, etc. They may not be aware of the resources available to them or of options available to them after graduation.

You are in a unique position to stay above the statistical fray!

The very fact that you’ve taken the steps to become a Pathways to Success student is a sure indication that you’ll excel beyond statistical expectations.  We offer the services and support you need to help you do well at Lehman College and beyond, which means graduating on time and knowing what you want to do after you graduate.

  • We’re your support – First-gen students are more likely to feel isolated and alone while on campus. Many of you work while taking classes, are enrolled part-time, or take evening classes. You simply do not have the time or energy to get involved on campus. PTS can help you receive the support you need and begin to feel more integrated with other college students.
  • We’re here to listen – In times of transition, it can be helpful for individuals to communicate what they are experiencing and what they need from one another. As you grow and develop here at Lehman College, you may begin to feel different from your family and peers. This is a natural process for all college students, and it can be helpful to share your experiences with each other. It’s encouraged that you discuss the above findings with your family and friends. Also, our Counselor Advocates are here to listen and to help you navigate through the at times unexpected changes you’ll experience during your tenure here at Lehman College.

    We’ll connect you to necessary resources
    – We can link you to the multitude of advising programs, tutoring programs, financial aid programs and counseling centers to help you navigate the college terrain. We can link you to groups, organizations, or support groups, and professional networking opportunities that are of interest to you on campus and/or beyond.
  • We can help you achieve balance and harmony – We know you have a lot to juggle! With the demands of academics, work, family, and a social life, it is important that you find a way to balance competing needs. We can teach you the time management skills, essential behaviors, and skills necessary for your success here and elsewhere.
  • Being a first-gen scholar shouldn’t be thought of as a burden of the past, but a privileged shot at a brighter future. As President Obama stated in his 2011 State of the Union Address:
    • The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, "The future is not a gift. It is an achievement." Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.Adapted from: "First-Generation College Students." Counseling Center. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. n.d. Web. 27 April. 2011.

Last modified: Jul 16, 2012

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