Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Common Struggles of First-Generation College Students (And How to Overcome Them)

From survival to success!

Starting college as a first-generation student is a huge milestone — you’re the trailblazer of your family, stepping boldly into uncharted territory. But behind this story is the reality that you have to juggle so many roles. We’ll explore first-generation college student problems and offer practical advice and tools for you to survive and thrive from college application to graduation. ✨

How to Face Limited Family Support and Guidance

A couple of African-American siblings and first-generation college students confused about college application and financial aid forms laid out on their kitchen table
Your family may be unable to help you for various reasons, so be resourceful in navigating the common problems of first-generation college students. Photo: wayhomestudio/Freepik

Your parents are proud to finally have a college student in the family, but they’re likely clueless about college applications or financial aid since they haven’t gone through the process. So, it’s best to seek advice from external sources.

Visit your school’s counseling office, attend your college’s bridge programs, and explore online tutorials and step-by-step guides created for first-generation college students. 💻

In some unfortunate cases, you may be greeted with indifference due to hidden resentment or fear over your achievements. Tara Westover, the author of Educated, experienced this firsthand; her father, opposed to formal education, believed college was “extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around.”

READ MORE: 12 Best Books for College Students: 2024 Must-Reads

Feeling that lack of needed support can be difficult, but stay true to your goals while acknowledging your family’s feelings. For example, talk about how your education can give you a high-paying job that will bring in more money for the family. 🫂

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

An African-American female first-generation college student holding her head in frustration among her clothes strewn on the bed
Trying to fit in can be a struggle, so learn to embrace yourself and where you came from and be proud of your accomplishments. Photo: Freepik

Downplaying accomplishments and second-guessing their place are common struggles of first-generation college students. Asking for help is also easier said than done since you’re not sure if people will understand your situation. 

First-generation college student Lyric Swinton had similar thoughts while pursuing student leadership positions. “There was always a little voice inside my head that created doubt, wondering if I was there just because I was valued, or was I there because diversity and inclusion were good buzzwords and my face fit the bill.” 💭

When these thoughts trouble you, find representation to be reminded that you can achieve success like the role models who came before you. Find out if your target college has first-generation faculty, established targeted support programs, or visible communities with students from similar backgrounds. 👍

TIP: You can check the I’m First program to find colleges that support first-generation college students. 

How to Balance Academic and Personal Responsibilities

A group of first-generation college student friends doing homework together in the campus library
Find like-minded friends once you begin college to help you catch up on coursework and announcements while you’re busy tending to your other responsibilities. Photo: rawpixel.com/Freepik

Before entering college, you may have been expected to watch over younger siblings, help out in the family store, or attend every family gathering. But college is a different playing field demanding much of your time. You’re learning how to study effectively, work part-time jobs to pay off student loans, and juggle extracurricular obligations. 😓

So, how do you solve this first-generation college student problem? Set boundaries! Explain how your academic responsibilities affect your availability with your family while creating a weekly schedule that allows time for college, personal, and social aspects of your life. 

You could also use campus resources like tutoring to speed up your reviewing time or find work-study programs or on-campus jobs to cut down on commute time and earn at the same time. 💸

READ MORE: 7 Awesome Ways Colleges Support Student Parents

How to Be Financially Literate

A female Central American first-generation college student calculating her monthly expenses on her notes and laptop
All students, especially low-income first-generation college students, must set aside a regular schedule to monitor and calculate expenses to avoid going over budget. Photo: Freepik

Being a first-generation college student can mean that your family may find higher education too expensive. Discussing finances may feel strange, but it’s crucial to learn at least the basics and make a student budget to avoid unintentionally plunging into debt. 💰

The average cost of attending college ranges between $13,960 to $56,190. But as long as you fill out your financial aid application, there are multiple ways to afford college:

READ MORE: How to Go to College for Free (Or Ultra-Cheap!): 9 Effective Ways

You can mix and match these, too. Approach your campus financial aid counselors to understand your options and assist you in your applications. ✅

How to Take Care of Mental and Physical Health 

A female first-generation college student stretches her leg on a yoga mat in the campus gym
Make the best out of college wellness programs for their students, like a gym or yoga class, to ease the stresses of being a first-generation college student. Photo: Freepik

Wanting to go the extra mile in academics, work, and every opportunity you can get ahold of is a common thing to do, but it’s also a ticket toward getting burnt out. 😞

Take charge of your schedule so you’ll have enough sleep and make time for exercise, where you can work out in your college gym or make it a point to walk across campus grounds between classes. You can also cook cheap yet healthy meals in your dorm to stay fit. 💪

Saying no to things outside your priority is perfectly fine to avoid taking on too many commitments that sacrifice your health. Don’t hesitate to seek free campus counseling services and take regular breaks to breathe and relax when things become overwhelming, too. 

Helpful Resources for First-Generation College Students

A group of first-generation college students discussing with an elderly male academic advisor in the campus library
Attend pre-college bridge programs and academic advisory services your university provides to get up to speed as a first-generation college student. Photo: Freepik

Whether you’re waiting for college application results or already starting your journey, these nonprofit organizations provide mentorship, career development, and support systems for first-generation college students:

  • America Needs You (ANY): Provides career preparation and mentorship from professional volunteers
  • Collective Success Network: Also a volunteer-run organization with mentorship programs on navigating college, career guidance, and graduate school preparation
  • Rise First: A one-stop shop for first-generation college student support resources

 If you’re feeling alone, find comfort in these real-life stories from first-generation college students:

Your campus may also have dedicated departments, offices, and clubs for first-generation college students. Check the school website to learn what on-campus resources are available to you. 👍


Mastering how to balance first-generation college student responsibilities takes time and patience. But you’re not alone in your unique journey. It won’t be easy at first, but seeking your community of friends or mentors and setting boundaries are good places to start that can get you far. ✨

Common Struggles of First-Generation College Students (And How to Overcome Them): Frequently Asked Questions

What is a first-generation college student?

A first-generation college student is someone whose parents did not obtain a bachelor’s degree, making them the first in their immediate family to attend a college or university.

Do first-generation college students have financial assistance?

What are common problems for first-generation college students?

Can you give examples of the best techniques for balancing responsibilities as a first-generation college student?

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