Being a first-generation student is a constant struggle.
Nobody in your family graduated or even attended college while you were growing up. You’re stuck with the responsibility of figuring out college by yourself. You don’t know where to seek advice, how to apply for scholarships or understand how FAFSA works.
First-generation students have gone through the trials and tribulations of figuring out college themselves. They learn from their mistakes and deal with expectations early in their college life to accepting their own individual college experiences.
“I really had to learn to be my own advocate”
“I’m learning to show myself more self-compassion. My experience is valid even if it’s not perfect or linear,” Chelsea Estrella says.
Estrella is the first in her family to attend college. She is the oldest of seven children and currently attends the University of Utah, where she’s working on getting her master’s degree in public health.
Early in her college career, Estrella had to overcome huge systematic barriers by herself.
“I didn’t have anyone close to me whom I could ask for advice. I really had to learn to be my own advocate,” she says. “There were so many mistakes I made that could have been prevented if I had guidance.”
Estrella’s family set high expectations. They wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer.
“My family had instilled that in me from a young age. It was a difficult conversation, but I’m grateful they became supportive,” she says.
Support from family and friends has helped Estrella overcome the expectations of being a first-generation student.
“It was the hardest four-plus years of my entire life,” she says, explaining her experience. It was isolating and stressful at times for Estrella, but the histories and knowledge she found in ethnic studies gave her a passion and purpose.
“A life-gaining experience”
In some cases, parents leave the place they call home and travel to a new country so their kids can receive a better education and future.
“The expectations are high in my family. My parents like to remind me that they went through the struggles of coming over here to look for better opportunities,” Danny Tran says.
Tran, a psychology major with a minor in business, is a student at Salt Lake Community College. He’s the second in his family to attend college.
Tran recognizes the sacrifices his parents made when they moved to the United States.
“There’s more pressure on us if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity that’s already given to us,” he says.
Tran has dealt with financial instability while in college. He’s worked multiple jobs at once to afford tuition and other expenses.
“That’s the reason to go to school, providing better opportunities towards our future. That’s the reason our parents came here in the first place,” he says.
Tran’s overall college experience has been a positive one. He enjoys going to school and learning new materials, as well as socializing with different individuals who understand and have like-minded goals.
“It’s a life-gaining experience,” he says.
“I want to have a better future for myself”
Pollet Villalobos is a student at the University of Utah. She’s the oldest of four children and the first in her family to receive their associate degree. She will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in education in May 2020.
Villalobos also struggled with the transition from high school to college.
“Being a first-generation student, I had to learn everything on my own,” she says. “I didn’t know how registration worked, how to apply for FAFSA or scholarships.”
Villalobos says she has learned a lot about herself in college. She feels more independent and now knows that if she applies herself to something she wants to do, she can achieve it.
Graduating from college is important to Villalobos.
“I want to have a better future for myself, and knowing all the sacrifices my parents made for my siblings and me, graduating is a way to show them that I appreciate all they’ve done,” she says.
“Give back to those who were with me along the way”
Alain Villa has an older sibling and is the first in his family to graduate from a university. Villa is graduating from the University of Utah in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Gaining financial stability is a way Villa overcomes his challenges.
“The notion that I’d be gaining more money also contributed to the drive,” he says. “Growing up, there was very little of it, and it seemed as though every childhood problem was due to the lack of money.”
College has helped Villa grow as a person tremendously.
“It’s has allowed me to analyze all aspects of my life and develop a clearer picture of what I want in life and how to get it,” he says.
Villa plans to use his degree to change his family’s outlook.
“More than anything, I want to make sure to give back to those who were with me along the way, primarily my mother,” he says. “In attaining this degree, I hope to relieve financial strain and introduce opportunities that my mother never had.”
The struggles and obstacles that first-generation students face are many. You’re already at a disadvantage your freshman year, but it’s up to you to let others know that you are more than just a statistic.
“Graduating is important because it’s not just an end, it’s also a beginning,” Estrella says.