Being the first college student in your family can be thrilling. In fact, many of our students state that the main reason they attend Bethel University is the chance to be the first to break though family barriers to earn a college degree. It’s a source of pride, a way to bring honor to their families, and a chance to improve their lives and the lives of those who follow.
But being a so-called “first-gen student” – someone whose parents did not attend college — can also be intimidating and confusing. It’s a little like being a pioneer heading through the wilderness without a map: Everything is new and untested. Many first-gen students receive mixed messages from family and friends who fear that they’ll evolve into someone … different. The lack of support and understanding can cause even adult students to struggle: One student admitted that she studied in the car because her family accused her of being “uppity” when she opened her textbooks in front of them. Maybe this is why national studies indicate that more than half of all first-generation students who drop out do so in their first year.
First Lady Michelle Obama, a first gen herself, nearly dropped out of college her freshman year. Today she admits that she didn’t understand what Orientation was designed to do, or how to choose classes, or even how to contact her professors. Another first-generation college student, David Bear, now an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, was only fourth person in his family to finish high school, and the first to go to college and then on to grad school. He recalls, “When I was accepted into a doctoral program, my grandfather said, ‘Isn’t it time to quit all this school foolishness?’” As a first-generation college student, his family was learning what higher education was all about, just as he was.
Despite the potential disconnect between students and their relatives, the vast majority of first-generation students go to college in order to help their families. And it doesn’t stop there: 61 percent of first-generation college students say they want to “give back to their communities,” compared to 43 percent of their non-first-generation peers. Many first-gens view their status of college student as a source of strength. They are driven and determined. They want to make a difference.
Of course, a college degree enables first-gens to score a higher-paying job, and that goes a long way toward positive change. Over the course of a lifetime, in fact, a college graduate is likely to earn $1 million more than a person with only a high-school diploma. *
But getting there can take more effort – and more guidance. If you’re a first-generation college student, be proud – but not too proud to ask for help. Bethel University’s staff, administrators and instructors are all ready, willing, and able to serve as guides on this journey. With plenty of support and determination, first-generation students can earn that degree, reinvent themselves, and reposition their families in positive ways for generations to come.
*Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Cindy Smith Chambers has 40 years’ experience in public relations and journalism. She serves as PR Director for Bethel University’s College of Professional Studies, and is a fulltime faculty member specializing in college writing and marketing.