first generation college student struggles

Navigating Change: Challenges for First-Generation College Students

College is a time of transition. Many students enter as teens—unsure of themselves and their place on campus—and graduate as adults, ready to take on the world. It’s a transformative time, to say the least. During this journey, first-generation college students often encounter a distinct set of challenges that can impact their academic success and overall well-being. From financial constraints and limited access to support services to navigating complex academic and social environments, first-generation college student struggles are multifaceted and profound.

First-generation college students are the first in their families to attend college. They are the trailblazers in their families, paving the way for future generations to pursue higher education. Without the guidance and support of parents or guardians who have navigated the college experience themselves, though, these students often face unique challenges as they strive to achieve their academic goals.

Financial Constraints

Finances are among the most common stressors for first-generation college students. Many come from low-income backgrounds and must grapple with the daunting task of financing their education without the financial resources or knowledge to navigate the complex world of student loans, scholarships, and financial aid.

Make no mistake, financial constraints are not just a minor inconvenience for first-generation college students. They are often the most pressing and overwhelming stressors they face. For many of these students, the financial burden of attending college looms large, casting a shadow over their academic journey and impacting every aspect of their lives.

First-generation college student challenges lead many to work multiple jobs, take out loans, or apply for dozens of scholarships to make ends meet. This constant juggling act between work, school, and financial responsibilities can take a toll on their mental and physical well-being.

Lack of Familial Support

Beyond the financial hardship that often comes with attending college, the lack of family support can be a real challenge. While most first-generation students have a strong familiar support system of parents and guardians cheering them on, they cannot always rely on their families for guidance. Unlike their peers who may have parents or guardians with firsthand knowledge of the higher education system, first-generation students often find themselves navigating the college journey alone.

Without familial support, first-generation students may lack the emotional and practical support necessary to navigate the challenges of college life. They may not have someone to turn to for advice on academic decisions, career choices, or personal struggles. This can leave them feeling isolated, misunderstood, and overwhelmed by the demands of college life.

The lack of familial support can exacerbate feelings of imposter syndrome—a phenomenon where individuals doubt their abilities and fear being exposed as frauds. First-generation college student struggles may lead some to question whether they belong on campus or if they are even capable of succeeding in college.

Navigating Academic and Social Challenges

Most college students struggle to adapt to the new academic and social challenges they face on campus. The challenges can be even greater for first-generation college students. Academic challenges may stem from a lack of exposure to college-preparatory resources and support systems during their high school years. They may struggle with time management, study skills, and academic writing—skills that are crucial for success in college-level courses.

First-generation students may lack access to academic support services such as tutoring, academic advising, and mentorship programs, which can further compound their academic challenges. Without guidance and support, they may struggle to navigate course selection, understand academic requirements, and seek out resources to help them succeed academically.

Systemic Inequities and Structural Barriers

What challenges do first-generation students face? To answer this question, we must take a thousand-foot view of the broader societal landscape, where systemic inequities and structural barriers intersect to create significant challenges for first-generation college students.

Many students from low-income families attend under-resourced K-12 schools with limited access to support services. Without access to a strong foundation, first-generation students may enter college with academic and college readiness gaps.

The college admissions process can be daunting and unfamiliar for first-generation students who lack access to college counseling and guidance. They may struggle to navigate the complexities of college applications, financial aid forms, and scholarship opportunities, leading to barriers to accessing higher education.

Once enrolled in college, first-generation students often face systemic barriers that hinder their academic success and retention. These barriers may include a lack of access to support services such as academic advising, tutoring, and mentorship programs, as well as a lack of representation and inclusion in campus culture and leadership.

Furthermore, racial and socioeconomic inequalities intersect to create additional challenges for first-generation students, particularly those from marginalized communities. Students from minority backgrounds, as well as those from low-income families, face systemic barriers and discrimination that limit their opportunities for academic and economic advancement.

Cultural and Identity Issues

Moving away from home for the first time means considering how our culture and family of origin shape our worldview. As such, first-generation student challenges extend beyond academic and social spaces to encompass complex questions of cultural identity and belonging.

First-generation students often struggle to balance their cultural background with the expectations of college. They may question their identity and sense of belonging as they navigate between their upbringing and college life. Some struggle to balance their cultural heritage with college life, facing pressure to conform to mainstream norms while also dealing with stereotypes about their identity.

First-generation students might feel lonely as they try to connect with peers from diverse backgrounds, facing challenges like language barriers and cultural differences. Colleges must create a supportive atmosphere that values diversity, encourages understanding between cultures, and offers tailored support for first-gen students. This helps all students feel welcome, respected, and supported.

Supportive Resources and Initiatives

The struggles of first-generation college students are well-documented. As these challenges are better understood on a broad scale, schools and non-profit organizations are doing their part to help. Many institutions provide mentorship programs where first-generation students are paired with faculty, staff, or upperclassmen who can offer guidance, advice, and support. Mentors can provide valuable insights, help navigate academic and career decisions, and offer encouragement during challenging times.

Affinity groups or student organizations specifically for first-generation students offer opportunities for networking, social support, and community building. These groups provide a space for first-generation students to connect with peers who share similar experiences, challenges, and aspirations.

Academic counseling services are also available to help first-generation students with course selection, academic planning, study skills, and time management. Counselors can also provide support for navigating academic challenges, addressing academic concerns, and connecting students with additional resources as needed.

Get Involved with Reality Changers

If you’re passionate about helping with first generation college student struggles, volunteer or donate to Reality Changers. We’re a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting first-generation college students through academic assistance, college readiness programs, mentorship, and leadership development initiatives.

By offering tailored academic support, guidance through the college admissions process, mentorship from caring individuals, and opportunities for leadership growth, Reality Changers helps first-generation students overcome obstacles, achieve academic success, and thrive in college and beyond.


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