Can you define what "first-generation student" means to you? What made you unique as a student, aside from family history?
As first-generation students, my sisters and I were the first in our family to pursue a college degree. With this came a sense of pride that I was representing an advancement for myself that nobody in my family had yet accomplished. As a first-generation student, I think I really understood the importance of a degree and the long-term benefits that come with it. However, I also felt guilty when I didn’t get the best grades or didn’t know what degree path to pursue since I was carrying the weight of this responsibility with me.
How did your approach to education as a first-generation student differ from your legacy counterparts?
At first, I think it was very similar. None of my friends growing up were first-gen students, so I had the same mindset as them: go to college, get a degree, and land a job. It seemed easy before I got to college. But I quickly learned in my first semester that I needed to find more resources on campus for questions that my family couldn’t answer.
Why is it important for first-generation students to attend college?
I think it’s essential for anyone to pursue higher education, but college gave me the opportunity to really do something for myself. It allowed me to explore my interests, expand my network, and build the foundation for my future.
It's often said that first-generation students tend to be insecure about their educational path and lack the level of support that their counterparts have. Do you agree with this? If so, why do first-generation students feel less confident? What factors determine support?
I think that’s absolutely true! It became obvious when I started college that I didn’t have the same kind of academic support system that most of my peers seemed to have. My parents never attended college, so I was pretty much on my own to figure out admissions, what major to declare, whether to go to a university or community college, payment, what classes to take, etc. It was easy for me not to be confident in what I was doing because I was new to all of this and it was up to me to navigate college -- I had nothing to compare it with.
In your experience, what are some key pieces of information that first-generation students are missing or learn later?
A big one for me was scholarships. Since I attended a wealthier high school, nobody was focused on college scholarships and my parents never mentioned them to me, either. If I could go back, I would have sought out all of the scholarships I could apply for to help pay for college.
What are the factors that lead you to pursue an education even though no one in your family has? Where did your value for education come from?
When I was in elementary school, my older sister was involved in Upward Bound. Since she was my primary babysitter, she always brought me along to their events and after-school sessions. I remember talking to the UB director about how excited I was to go to college someday and being able to do all of these things on my own. I think at that point, college became a personal goal.
First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and drop out of college. How can we help reverse this trend? At what stage did you feel like you needed more support as a first-generation student?
I think I noticed that I needed more support towards the end of my first semester of college. Before that, I had that “I’m out of high school and can do anything” mentality, so I believed I had this college thing down.
If there were more dedicated “first-generation/low-income” student resources in college, it might benefit first-gen students who are looking for a one-stop place for information. I had to work throughout college, so I didn’t have time to run around the campus searching for answers. Having a specific place -- whether online or on-campus -- would have been extremely beneficial for me.
How can educators ensure that they are supporting the first-generation student population before they get to college? How can educators support them in college?
I wasn’t aware of any specific resources that were available for first-generation students. At my high school, we had something called the “College and Career Center,” but they were primarily focused on helping students land a part-time job after high school or pursue a vocational program, which wasn’t what I was interested in at the time. It would have been beneficial for me to have a workshop on scholarships, college applications, how to pay for college, etc.
Once first-generation students are in college, it is up to them to reach out to their professors for support. I think the best thing educators can do is be available for these students and understand the unique challenges that first-generation students may encounter in college.
Do you have any ideas about how to get first-generation students more involved in the academic community?
More college prep programs -- like Upward Bound -- that are readily available for ALL high school students. Unfortunately, when I got to high school, UB was no longer offered at my institution.
What were some useful resources for you as a first-generation student?
I can’t stress the importance enough of taking advantage of academic advising in college. My advisors helped me understand my options and figure out my academic plan.
Shelby BrownFirst-Generation Student
Shelby studied digital journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno where she developed her skills in strategic communication. Her experience as a first-generation student and professional background working with students and various college prep programs made her a firm believer in college affordability and accessibility. In her current job, she continues to advocate for students by stressing the importance of higher education.