The Unnoticed Struggles of First Generation Students

Colleges and universities are viewed as instruments for social mobility, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic factors. However, their focus on independence and not interdependence has left first-generation (FG) students at a great disadvantage. Independent models promote thinking for one’s self, expanding self-knowledge, and exploring new interests, while interdependent models stress helping family, contributing to the community, and bringing honor to the family. Today, 50% of FG students come from low-income and are of ethnic-minorities, most of which are raised with the focus on contributing to the success of their family and community. This means the pressure to succeed is higher as we represent not just ourselves but our entire family, and by extension our community. Today, 69% of FG students have expressed the desire to earn degrees to help out families and 61% list the desire to give back to their communities, as compared to continuing-generation students whose responses were 39% and 43% respectively.

Many students see college as their chance to be independent and become who they are meant to be. However, this is not the reality for many FG students. Nowadays FG students constitute a larger portion of students at colleges and universities, but the independence model has stayed the same; and although more colleges and universities are working to bring in a diverse population, their efforts to understand and retain FG students are inefficient. While many FG students often take the first step in pursuing higher education, they are at higher risk of dropping out, having lower grades or simply taking fewer credits. Although we can beat the odds and get into college, there are still many obstacles we must face once we decide to enroll.
I am the first of three daughters to attend college. I was lucky enough to be raised in a household that put education first, but by no means does this imply that my parents knew about college tours or FAFSA. Unfortunately, they were unable to guide me through the college application process, what to look for in a college or how to receive funding (because they sure as hell did not have the resources to send one kid to college, let alone three). I had to figure this out along the way. In addition, as the daughter of immigrant parents, I was responsible for teaching my parents the basics of the school system.

I became that curious girl who asked a million questions in order to succeed. I know that many people live in fear of asking for help, and I too have been one of them. But, there was no older sister or brother I could go to for help, and I learned early in the game that I could not risk not knowing certain things. It would have led to a missed scholarship, internship or not attending the school of my dreams.

Not only are there socioeconomic issues at hand for FG students, but also silent and crucial mental health issues that go untreated. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four college students have a diagnosable illness, but 40 percent do not seek help and 50 percent become so anxious that they struggle in school. The most prevalent mental health concerns are depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders and addiction. Although there are on-campus resources, they lack visibility and are often not tailored to FG/ transfer students.
Due to socioeconomic circumstances, my college journey began at Mount San Antonio College, where I had to sit in on classes for weeks before being added to them, learn what work-study was and balance two jobs and an internship. Ironically, I had been told many times that I was “lucky” to have my college tuition paid for by FAFSA since most continued-generation students have parents who paid for theirs. What these people did not see was that I was economically, socially and mentally at a huge disadvantage. I had to prove to the government that there was not enough money in my household for me to keep pursuing my education, and that all I had was my intention to succeed.
Universities must provide more resources for FG students to help navigate college from the beginning to remove the cultural obstacles that we face. While in every FG college student there is resilience, perseverance, and resourcefulness, there is also anxiety, stigma, and pressure. Many times our parents can only offer a hug or a home-cooked meal because this system is so alien to them.

It cannot continue to be up to us to transform the unknown into resources and confidence. We don’t know the rules of the game but we are expected to abide by them and succeed. There is an urgency for universities to revamp how they recruit and retain FG college students. The opportunities may seem equal, but there are inequalities that need social and psychological intervention so that first-generation college students can be as successful as their continuing generation counterparts.

Alice Terriquez is a fifth-year history major. She can be reached at aterriqu@uci.edu.