First-generation students face many challenges as they adjust to college


Adriana Eldred

Left to right: Adriana, Marisa and Carina Eldred

Editor’s note: The reporter for this article is first generation, and one of the interviewees is her sister.

Imagine sitting down for an exam you haven’t taken the course for. You don’t have the textbook, because nobody told you the title or where to find it. You didn’t get the syllabus at the beginning of class because you weren’t there. You didn’t study, because nobody offered you guidance. You didn’t even know what to bring, so you brought nothing.

This is what a being a first-generation college student can sometimes can feel like.

You may have taken classes before, you may know how to study, and you may even know how to write a kick-ass scholarship essay, but you don’t know how to apply for college. You don’t know how to create a FAFSA account, never mind how to apply for financial aid, and your family can’t help you, because they haven’t done it either.

Being a first-generation college student is like having all the tools in your box, without the guidance to build something.

Each first-gen student has different tools in their kit. This is why defining and identifying what it means to be first generation is essential in understanding its nature and how to tackle it.

One aspect of being first-generational that can make it hard to grasp is that each circumstance is distinct and complex, relative to the individual.

“I haven’t really felt like a true first-gen student because one of my parents had gone to college and had just not received a degree,” says Sarah Torrellas, a junior in the education major. “I know it counts, but there has been inner conflict because of that.”

The most widely accepted definition is that neither parent or guardian raising the student has attended and/or completed college. As a result, many first-gen students come from low-income homes as well.

According to Johnson State Academic Support Services, around 65 percent of on-campus students are either first-gen, low income or both. Being a college student is hard enough, but first-gens have a variety of challenges unique to their demographic.

Low income can be just as complex to identify as first-gen. Some households have multiple children, while others have only one source of income or have parents on disability. Whatever the case, the outcome results in students having to find their own way to pay for college.

“It’s up to you, from pretty early on,” says fellow first-generation college student Marisa Eldred. “From figuring out the admissions process to finding people who can help you, it feels like you’re on your own, even just in getting into college.” This feeling of aloneness is often the biggest driver in lower retention rates and success for this demographic.

In a study done by the National Center for Education Statistics, between years 2011 and 2012, only 11 percent of low income first-gens will complete a college degree within six years of enrollment, compared to 55 percent of their more advantaged counterparts. At Johnson, there is no specific information collected that indicates how many first-gen students graduate.

Twenty-five percent of first-gens attended four-year institutions, while almost 50 percent only enrolled in two-year degree programs. Due to family dynamics and demands, first-gens are also more likely to attend school part time.

Family and home life is an important variable in how motivated a student is in seeking a degree. “There was definitely pressure from my family [and] from my mom,” says Torrellas. “Being in the ed program and having a degree and a certification is kind of what she wanted . . . She sees degrees as a piece of paper, and a license and certification as a way to get work.” Because of this, while there was pressure to be successful in the Torrellas household, a degree was not emphasized as the only option.

“I think that first-gen students value their education more so, or at least in a different way, than students who already knew what they were getting into. I feel like students who are first-gen had to work a lot harder, because a lot are low income, and have to find a way to pay for their education,” says Eldred.

“It’s so complex, because there’s always other conditions that are sitting on top of that first-generation characteristic or trait. Overall, I could say that some of those students have an intrinsic motivation and they just want to be successful, and so they reach out for help,” says Carolyn D’Luz, coordinator of Academic Support Services. “They want to get a degree, and they’re eager to do their best. And they keep coming back if there’s an obstacle.”

D’Luz has found in her long career in Academic Support and TRiO that her job as a TRiO mentor is important in helping these students reach success. “They even come back to share their success stories,” says D’Luz, “and I think in that regard, they share their successes with us, because their parents are not able to truly understand the significance of that success.”