What Graduation Season Means for a First-Generation College Student

Indiana University Bloomington graduate Ashley Peña is among the first-generation students who posted a TikTok video with their family members wearing their graduation cap and stole.
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Chloe Appleby is an associate writer for BestColleges. She contributes to both the News and Data teams, writing both higher education news stories and data reports for the site. She graduated from Davidson College with a BA in English and communicati...
Published on May 26, 2023
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  • Ashley Peña, a recent first-generation college graduate, earned her degree in media advertising with a minor in Latino studies from Indiana University Bloomington this spring.
  • She, along with many other first-generation students, posted videos on TikTok of them placing their graduation caps and stoles onto their parents.
  • Around 37% of undergraduate college students were first-gen, and 26% of those college students went on to get their degree.

The public address announcer at Indiana University Bloomington's spring 2023 graduation had asked family and friends to hold their applause until the end of the ceremony. But as Ashley Peña crossed the stage to receive her diploma, she could still hear her loved ones cheering from the far corner of the stadium.

They had traveled two hours from their small town in southern Indiana to Bloomington to watch Peña, 20, become the first person in their family to graduate from college.

The mortarboard she wore was hand-painted with the message: "Mis Sueños Fueron Más Fuertes Que Mis Miedos," which translates to "My Dreams Were Stronger Than My Fears." Peña told BestColleges that earning her degree in media advertising with a minor in Latino studies broke "generational curses."

"I never thought I would step foot in a college," she said. "I knew I wanted to (go to college) ever since I was a little girl. It was the biggest accomplishment I ever completed in my whole entire life."

Now, Peña is on to pursuing big dreams. She wants to work in advertising and help grow representation of the Hispanic community in that field. And she wants to "be in charge of something."

"I know I have dreams, and I know who I want to be in the future. I know what I want to accomplish. I know what I want to give my parents in the future," she said. "My fears could not be bigger than my dreams. As much as I was scared, I didn't let those fears stop me or place an obstacle in my path."

Celebrating Success, Honoring Family On TikTok

Peña was one of thousands of first-generation college students to earn a degree this spring.

A first-generation college student is someone who is enrolled in college but whose immediate family members did not earn degrees.

Around 37% of undergraduate college students were first-gen, and 26% of those college students went on to get their degree, according to BestColleges' data report on first-generation students. Hispanic and Latino/a, Black, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaska Native students are more likely than students of other races and ethnicities to be first-generation. White students are the least likely to be first-generation students.

But a recent trend on TikTok shows the degree to which the families of first-generation college graduates are very much a part of the success these students are realizing: First-generation graduates in the class of 2023 are sharing videos of themselves presenting their cap and stole to their loved ones.

Peña, a social media maven herself, picked up on the trend, broadcasting her accomplishment and pride for her family to her nearly 11,000 followers. Her degree, she told BestColleges, was not just hers, but also theirs.

@ash_061 Thankful for my family who supported me through it all🎓❤️ #graduation #firstgen #college #parati #fyp ♬ sonido original - Paola Betancur

"I worked so hard to get that degree, but I wasn't the only one working hard, it was my parents. They put in hours of work, hours of labor and sacrifice to get me to get that degree … I am not the only graduate here. All three of us are graduates because we did this," Peña said.

Her video has garnered more than 56,000 likes and 270 comments. It has helped Peña discover there are thousands of students who share similar experiences.

"When I posted that video, I saw a lot of supportive comments, and I realized that there's plenty of us that feel the same way, that this graduation as a first-gen is important," she said.

First-Generation College Students Belong

Peña's road to graduating from Indiana University Bloomington shows how family and determination shaped her first-generation experience — and success — in higher education.

As a high schooler, she took several dual degree courses to get her associate degree in the same month that she graduated. Even though she did not have anyone in her family to ask about their experiences with college and scholarship applications or the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA), she used YouTube and online articles to bridge the gap.

"When it came to college, it was territory that was unmarked, unwalked in my family. I was brave enough to walk that territory, a territory we were not meant to walk on. I was scared, and it was scary. I wasn't used to being that far away from my family," she said.

Even while in college, hours away from home, she was still a vital part of the family unit. On top of making appointments and helping translate for her younger siblings, Peña also supported her dad's construction business while studying full time.

"English isn't his first language, but he knew he wanted to start his construction business, so I was there as his right-hand," Peña said.

Peña worked as a communicator for her father. Between college assignments, she would make concrete estimates and send text messages back and forth with his clients. She also used her skills in digital advertising to design his logo and Facebook page.

As she prepares for the next stage of her life with these experiences — and a degree — in hand, Peña wants other first-generation students to know that at some point they may feel a sense of "imposter syndrome" — a feeling that they do not belong or that they are not good enough.

Her advice to those first-generation and future first-generation students is to connect with their family and community and even seek out therapists to talk to about these feelings.

First-generation students should stay positive during those times of doubt, Peña said. Facing struggles and hardship during college doesn't mean you're not smart enough to achieve your goals.

"If you think you don't belong somewhere, that's your sign you do belong there," Peña said.