How I Learned to Balance Family and Academics While Pursuing College

Family support can help college students succeed, but for first-generation students it can be a challenge. Learn how one student balanced family and academics.
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As a first-generation student, one of the most difficult things I had to learn how to do was balance family and my academics. Being one of the first in my family to attend an undergraduate residential college was a new experience. Even though I spent most of my senior year of high school preparing for this chapter in my life, I had no idea what to expect. I constantly kept thinking to myself: Would I be prepared? Am I ready?

Almost all of my teachers talked about how difficult college was, but now that I am reflecting on their words, they only told us about how hard it would be academically. Don't get me wrong, college can be challenging, but there are several other aspects that I didn't consider.

Looking for Shared Experiences

Once I graduated from high school, I decided to attend Ithaca College, which is a predominantly white institution. While Ithaca has a diverse BIPOC community, I was still a minority in terms of being a student of color. When I entered a classroom, meeting, seminar, or event on campus, I often felt like the only student of color in that space at that time.

Déontae on stage.
Déontae on stage. Image Credit: Déontae Guy

Before I got to Ithaca, I received a lot of advice from my school counselors and teachers, but after I started the first semester, the advice I received wasn't very helpful. Why not? The people who gave me advice didn't and couldn't understand me or my background.

I was leaning on people who weren't of color or minority individuals. Those two things shape a student's experience when preparing for college. The folks I was listening to grew up in two-parent households where their parents could afford to pay their full tuition. These folks came from generations of family members who went to and graduated from colleges. Unfortunately, those weren't the relationships I had at the time.

As an 18-year-old Black kid from a single-parent household, it was hard to find that support. Oftentimes, when we look for guidance, we turn to those who have helped raise and guide us through most of the difficult times in our lives. So who else would you turn to (who actually knows you) than your family?

Getting support from your family can be challenging in certain situations when they might not know what you're going through or how to help. Not because they don't want to, but simply because they don't have that shared experience of going to college. This means you have to be intentional and find someone who you can identify and connect with. And help you be successful in this new environment.

Balancing the Relationships I Value

Heading into your undergraduate years, you have a lot of questions. Once I started leaning into people who could relate to my life, things started falling into place — mainly mentally and emotionally.

"I valued what my family had to say, and I found a way to gain a holistic perspective from people who know me and mentors who have been in my shoes before."

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I made it a point to establish college mentor relationships with deans, faculty chairs, campus directors, and members of the president's team to gain advice and guidance in the academic and professional aspects of my college experience. Once I made these connections, I learned to trust their advice and use it to my advantage in my coursework and extracurricular pursuits.

After I adjusted to college life, I reached out to my family. I didn't hold back on where my journey was taking me. I told them what I was trying to do, what I learned, things I was still unsure of, and the connections I made to help me in my journey. My family still had questions and input, but instead of discarding it, I was able to take it back to my mentors and incorporate their perspectives.

Some of my peers wondered why I chose to communicate with my family in this way. While my peers may not have understood my process, I learned everyone does not value everything the same.

I valued what my family had to say, and I found a way to gain a holistic perspective from people who know me and mentors who have been in my shoes before. No one person has the answer to every solution or challenge. My family constantly told me that "it takes a village to raise a child." So I decided to build my village here at Ithaca College.

Remembering to Enjoy the Ride

Another element of balancing family with your academic career is responsibilities. Many students of color, like myself, are first-generation college students with more family obligations than the average college student. Some of these responsibilities may include helping your parents pay for housing or groceries, babysitting siblings and relatives, and so much more.

Déontae Guy with his mother and President Emeritus Shirley Collado.
(Pictured left to right) Déontae Guy with
President Emeritus Shirley Collado and his mother.
Image Credit: Déontae Guy

It's not irrational to ask yourself, "Can I still support my family while I'm in school?" I believe that question is actually essential to your academic success if you do find yourself entering college with these responsibilities. Is it impossible to do both? No. Will it be challenging? Speaking for myself, it was more challenging during my first three years at Ithaca because I wasn't expecting it. I thought when I got to campus my responsibilities back home would just disappear, but that wasn't the case. My family still needed me.

I tried to take on my family responsibilities along with everything I had added to my plate on campus, but I quickly became mentally, physically, and emotionally overwhelmed. So, I made the hard decision to take a step back. I took some time to talk to my family and let them know how I could help them while I was in college. This also took a bit of work on my end; I had to become more disciplined socially and financially to balance competing priorities and demands.

Additionally, I did two things to make sure I didn't become overwhelmed again. First, I talked to someone who I could just vent to and share my burdens with. Sometimes they had advice for me, but they were really there just to listen to me. Second, I made sure I had fun. I got to a point where I realized it's okay to have fun and enjoy yourself and do something you want to do without constantly feeling the pressure to show up and perform for everybody else. It's good to work hard and take care of your responsibilities, but what kind of life would it be if you didn't take time to enjoy life itself?!

"I tried to take on my family responsibilities along with everything I had added to my plate on campus, but I quickly became mentally, physically, and emotionally overwhelmed."

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As I said earlier, everyone has different values; the things that are important to me vary from others because their lives aren't the same as mine. Still, it's important to reflect and find out what those values are. Once you recognize those values, figure out a way to uphold them throughout your college experience. Throughout your journey, you will certainly have ups and downs, including issues with your family. This is something I wish I'd realized sooner that would've prepared me for so many challenges to come.

Furthermore, take the time to reflect on the relationships you have with your family before you start your college journey. There may be nuggets of wisdom you can take from those relationships to help you be successful and challenge you to become a better person. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all solution because each of our journeys is different. However, preparing for your journey is the key to success.

Meet the Author

Portrait of Déontae Guy

Déontae Guy

Déontae Guy is a senior at Ithaca College pursuing a bachelor of science in sociology with a minor in counseling. His life goals are to counsel and coach students toward successful academic lives.

He is very active on campus, working with public safety as a student auxiliary safety patrol member and with information technology as a student manager. He also served as president of the student body for Ithaca's student government council during his junior year.