How I Found My Confidence as a First-Generation College Student With a Disability

Navigating college as a first-generation student can be tricky, particularly if you have a disability. Learn how one student overcame this challenge.

portrait of Nicole Mendez-Villarrubia
by Nicole Mendez-Villarrubia

Published August 9, 2022

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How I Found My Confidence as a First-Generation College Student With a Disability
Image Credit: Igor Alecsander / E+ / Getty Images

Navigating college as a first-generation student with a disability brings a unique set of strengths and struggles. I've faced adversity as it relates to my health, academic environment, and social interactions. Honestly, I have felt isolated at times throughout my college journey.

However, I've remained ambitious and have become more adaptable thanks to these experiences. They also taught me to advocate for myself and problem-solve in creative ways when I encounter obstacles. Sometimes adversity can create a greater drive for success.

Overcoming Struggles With the Help of First-Gen Student Resources

Often, I'm unable to do things the same way as my peers. Academia tends to be an inaccessible environment to navigate physically and mentally. Many campuses are full of historical buildings without proper ramps or elevator access. Even when they're technically ADA accessible, elevators may not fit a powerchair or service animal, there may not be a restroom you can use, and the list goes on. Additionally, hills and steep ramps can become dangerous when it rains or snows.

Overall, there are many obstacles that can't be physically overcome on college campuses. It's frustrating to feel excluded and have these additional considerations just to get to class.

Adding to this challenge, I feel there is so much pressure for students from a variety of backgrounds to fit into a specific mold and follow a certain path. It's great to set big goals for yourself, but sometimes it seems that you're not doing enough if you're not stretching yourself thin. For a perfectionist such as myself, this can become a vicious cycle of comparison.

“Overall, there are many obstacles that can't be physically overcome on college campuses. It's frustrating to feel excluded and have these additional considerations just to get to class.”

Fortunately for me, I had the support of Cardinal First, my college's first-generation student program, and the student disability services office. They equipped me with resources to succeed.

Through Cardinal First, I was able to connect with fellow first-generation students and faculty. It helped to know that I wasn't actually alone in my experience. Cardinal First has been a safe space to ask questions about college challenges. In addition, I've been able to attend personal and career development workshops. They've covered things like interviewing for a job, writing a resume, and how to be financially literate.

Utilizing Student Disability Services for Additional Support

Speaking of finances, that has been a major stressor these past few years. Filling out the FAFSA, applying for scholarships, and balancing work with my studies has been tricky. Doubly so because my disability affects what and how much work I can do and comes with additional expenses. I have doctor's appointments frequently and was hospitalized during the school year. This makes it hard to keep a job and keep my grades up, which in turn can affect my college scholarships. I've also needed to take a semester off and will be graduating late.

This is where my accommodations from student disability services have been beneficial. I'm able to communicate with them and my professors to set more flexible deadlines for assignments when needed. Additionally, I'm not penalized for missing class and sometimes have the option to join remotely.

I wouldn't have been as successful if not for academic accommodations. Some people may think they provide an unfair advantage, but they're actually leveling the playing field. I'm still working just as hard to achieve my goals.

During my first semester of college, I was admitted to the hospital just a few weeks after classes began. I was worried that I would need to drop out of school. However, I was able to join class virtually so I wouldn't fall behind. That was a beneficial change resulting from the pandemic. Also, getting extensions on assignments and staying in constant communication with my professors meant I finished the semester with strong grades. It was a stressful experience, but I was able to build relationships with them by going to office hours and demonstrating my work ethic.

“Some people may think they provide an unfair advantage, but they're actually leveling the playing field. I'm still working just as hard to achieve my goals.”

Staff from Cardinal First and the disability services office guided me through some of the most important decisions in my academic career. They encouraged me to take care of my health so I could succeed in school. For me, this meant sticking to a minimum course load some semesters. I had to weigh the pros and cons of taking more time to graduate and possibly spending more money. It's worked out well so far, though.

Forcing myself to stick to a timeline that someone else made up was negatively impacting my physical and mental health. I would take on more work than I could handle, and then I would fall behind in all of it. Now, I have a better work-life balance.

Finding Confidence in My Unique Path

It's easy to feel burnt out due to some of these life circumstances and systemic barriers. However, I've found it beneficial to seek out mentors at college. That includes faculty and other students farther along in their education. It has made a world of difference to feel supported in both my personal and academic life. I've stayed in touch with professors who are empathetic and open-minded. Many of them aren't even in my major, but they are still willing to cheer me on.

Overall, my college experience hasn't been smooth sailing, but it has taught me so much. I'm constantly learning more about myself and what I want in life.

I'd like to give back to the disability community through my work in the future. Being a media studies and communications major gives me a wide range of skills I can bring to community organizations. For example, this summer, I assisted an adaptive technology startup at Boston University's summer accelerator program. Its goal is to help people live more independently by utilizing smart home technology. I helped with the customer discovery and engagement process. I found the work to be very fulfilling and would love to pursue similar opportunities in the future.

The struggles I've faced aren't something that can be "overcome" and done with. On the flip side, I've gained the skills and wisdom to carve my own path. It might not look like everyone else's, but that's okay.

Meet the Author

Portrait of Nicole Mendez-Villarrubia

Nicole Mendez-Villarrubia

Nicole Mendez-Villarrubia is a disabled writer and activist. She's passionate about using digital media to connect communities. Currently, Nicole attends North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.