Experiences of First-Generation College Students

Hand buried under pile of papers

Written by Lupita Lance, M.S., & Mapi Baez, B.A.

When it comes to pursuing higher education, most of us can agree it’s a lot of work right from the start!  For some of us, we had parents, siblings, friends, or some other figure in our life who lived this experience ahead of us.  They had the roadmap, they knew what to expect, what questions to ask, and how to navigate the barriers.

In contrast, first-generation college students may be working towards this goal without someone who has walked the path. As part of the Ashford University Equity Council’s Development Workgroup initiative, we want to share our experiences as first-generation college students in an effort to raise awareness of the challenges that exist for this community of learners and to pass along information we have gathered during our journeys.


Three pink birds and one yellow bird

What was the biggest challenge of pursuing a degree?

Lupita My college experience has been both negative and positive.  How often do you find yourself in a space where you feel out of place, or feel you don’t belong there? I bet the answer is quite often. I know for me, one of the first times I felt out of place was when I set foot back into a classroom.

When I began my degree, I was twenty-eight years old, a single mother of a young boy, and I remember asking myself, “Why are you here?” Negative thoughts came rushing into my head: “I’m too old!” “I can’t afford it.” “I am not smart enough.” And even, “I don’t deserve to be here…”  That last one is heavy, I know.  But it’s the truth.

As the first in my family to go to college, I had to figure out the whole process on my own. I think one of the most difficult challenges was to allow myself to believe that I could do this.  To believe that I could figure out all that I needed to figure out and connect with all the resources I needed to connect with to begin that journey.

Mapi I’m a first-generation college student – well, maybe not technically. By most definitions, a first-generation college student is one who is the first in their family to attend college. I am not the first in my family to go to college, but I am the first in my family to attend college in the United States. For this reason, I feel like I fit the bill.

My mother has a college degree, earned from a Mexican university. Her experience, however, was not telling of what I could expect in my college career, or how to prepare in the years leading up to it.  Not only did my mother earn her degree two decades before I began pursuing mine, but she earned it in a foreign country. She lacked knowledge of all aspects of the admission process for universities within the United States, of grants and scholarships, the SAT, and everything in between.

I did not know it then, but this was a disadvantage. Like a true first-generation college student, I did not reap the benefits of having a parent guide, coach, and prepare me for college from an early age. I had to find my own way – effectively completing the daunting process of getting into a university, by myself.

First-generation college students share many similarities, each journey being truly unique. It is within those similarities that lies our ability to connect with one another. We are able to understand the challenges, the struggles, and the achievements that come with being a part of this group.

question mark on blueHow did you stay motivated once you decided to go to college?

Lupita I had to remind myself of the reasons why I wanted to go back to school after being away for almost ten years. I wanted to go back to school to be able to provide a better future for my son and myself. I also wanted to learn, grow and explore more about the world.

I began my journey by going online and looking at one of the local community colleges in my area. I went to their prospective students’ webpage and read about the first steps to take and the resources available to help me with the enrollment process. I called and made an appointment with a counselor, and after the appointment I was told I needed to take a placement exam.  This is a type of test that helped the college and myself figure out the level at which I would start with my Math and English courses. I remember thinking, “I only remember the basics for Math, but I am pretty good with English.” I had this backwards, I placed high in Math and low in English and thought, “This was a bad idea. Maybe I am not as smart anymore.”

Nonetheless, I continued to remind myself, I deserved the opportunity to reach for my goals. I started with one class to allow myself time to adjust to a new schedule. A good friend of mine said to me, “Take baby steps and soon you will see how far you have gone”. I am glad I listened to her wise words.

Mapi My mother taught me the value of higher education. Her experience was influential and a driving force in my desire to pursue my own college degree. Once in, there was no one familiar I could really talk to when feeling the pressures and challenges of college. I could call home, but I didn’t get the understanding I desired. I was unprepared for the emotional factors that came with being a first-generation college student. Nevertheless, my family was a huge motivation. I saw how proud it made my parents and my brother. I stayed motivated because I wanted to earn a degree. I knew having a degree would open more doors.

One of the greatest aspects of this experience, besides earning my bachelor’s degree, was overcoming the challenges I faced even when the odds were against me. I came to understand and appreciate the trials. I navigated, at times alone, through making choices and mapping out a career. I learned to adjust, conquer, and achieve.

white chat bubbles including checkmark and xWhat was your biggest resource?

Lupita It started with one person who was very supportive and helped me get through some of these early challenges. The financial aid counselor I spoke with asked me about my goals and challenges. Sharing this allowed them to help me identify local supports. I got connected with the Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS). I was assigned to a counselor who understood the pressures of a single mother and she guided me through all the correct channels to transfer to a four-year university where I would complete my bachelor’s degree.

Asking questions about what we need can be difficult. I know I felt scared to ask because I was not sure who or where to ask because that meant I had to share some of my story and my fears with someone. I was not sure who would listen.

Mapi  I connected with other individuals who were also first-generation college students. Being able to relate to others was helpful. We shared knowledge and experiences that supported our growth. I also took advantage of what the university offered. I sought out information, asked questions and actively participated in workshops and events that aligned with my goals. I advocated for myself.

Girl with her arms raised in the airA message to anyone who can relate to this experience?

Lupita I write these words to remind all of you feeling overwhelmed and struggling with some of these feelings that: you are not alone, school is not easy. Taking that first step to reach out and click on a link to get more information about a life changing decision takes a lot of courage. Following those initial baby steps to start and complete each of the enrollment processes and to schedule your classes are all big accomplishments.

Mapi  Like myself, there are many who find themselves navigating this overwhelming path of being a first-generation college student. Some of us face additional challenges in trying to balance school while working a fulltime job and caring for a family. Success is measured differently, but no matter the journey, the reward at the end of a difficult road is always so much more fulfilling. I appreciate the lessons learned and how the experience shaped me. I am able to better understand and support students, colleagues, and friends who find themselves in a similar path. I take pride in being a first-generation college student.


Colorful balloons in sky

Together, we’ll leave you with this.  There will be barriers and different challenges ahead. Asking for help is important in achieving our goals, even when we don’t always know the right things to ask. Self-advocacy is key through our life and college journey. Here at Ashford we have many different resources available to help us navigate through some of the challenges we face as students. Please follow the links below for additional information.

Please let us know if you would be interested in participating in a discussion group or if there are other needs we can address. Your voice counts toward our ability to offer a full range of resources to support you in your educational journey.