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What First Generation College Students Really Need

Students who are the first in their family to attend college cite mental health support as the single most important resource schools can provide.

This fall, a whole new cohort of college students is beginning their journey into higher education, with all the excitement and potential that entails. I’ll never forget my first day of freshman orientation in 1997. The University of Southern California campus was in full bloom – cardinal and gold draped on every building, flowering hedge, and human body as far as the eye could see. It was also the day I had a massive panic attack and passed out in the middle of campus.

My reaction may have been extreme, but it also makes sense in context. You see, I am a “First and Only,” the term I use to describe those who are the first in their family to cross a societal threshold. The trails First and Onlys blaze are unique to the individual yet one of the most significant – and emotionally taxing – is that of higher education. I had no blueprint to follow when I started college at age 17, and I was completely unprepared. I had never set foot on campus, despite growing up less than 15 miles away. And I certainly had no understanding of the emotional toll that being a first gen student takes.

I am one of millions.

Today, Nov. 8, is National First-Generation College Celebration Day – an annual recognition of the achievements of first gen students, celebrated on the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. This is not a small population. One third of all college students in the U.S. are first gen students. Notably, 70% of all Latino college students are first gen. Yet, there is still a lack of consensus in higher education on what criteria define these young people.

In my home state of California, the University of California system considers someone a first gen student if their parent(s) did not receive a bachelor’s degree, yet community colleges in the state define a first gen student as someone whose parents never attended college at all.

recent CalMatters report found that in the California State University system, one definition listed on their website – that of students whose parents had never attended college at all – was inclusive of 31% of CSU students, yet another definition – that of students whose parents may have attended but never received a bachelor’s degree – increased that number to 52%. Without a more clearly defined population and inclusive perspective, even well-intentioned institutions can struggle to understand how to best support these students in meaningful ways.


I’ve spent the last few months speaking one-on-one to first gen students at colleges and universities across the country, following the release of my book, “FIRST GEN.” As a Pell Grant recipient who went on to attend graduate school at Harvard and later work in the Obama White House, I wrote “FIRST GEN” from the firsthand understanding that there is an emotional cost to social and economic mobility. A “Trailblazer Toll” that often goes unacknowledged. We tend to be familiar with the pride, but not so much with the price.

Even two decades after my own college experience, the struggles I’ve heard voiced by countless students sound remarkably similar to the ones I faced, which is why I recently commissioned a national poll of first gen students. The poll revealed what First and Onlys like myself already inherently understand: Much of the first gen student experience can be isolating and traumatizing.

This groundbreaking Bendixen & Amandi poll found that 65% of respondents believe that the experience of navigating college as a first gen student has had a negative impact on their emotional and mental health. This tracks with graduation rates: Of first gen students whose parents have no education beyond high school, only 20% have completed their own bachelor’s degrees.

But what’s behind these numbers? First gen students have already proven their aptitude, drive, and resilience by accessing higher education against all odds in the first place. What’s happening during college that derails the hopes of such an optimistic and hardworking group?

The cause we found to be behind this dynamic goes against the common assumption of what might be holding back high-achieving students as they access new educational environments and social class systems, as well as the messages that we as First and Onlys are often told about ourselves.

It is not primarily “imposter syndrome” that troubles most first generation young people, a phenomenon that steers the onus of the problem – a lack of confidence – back onto students themselves. According to our survey, the most difficult emotional and mental health aspect of being a first gen student is financial trauma (33%), followed by loneliness or isolation from one’s peers (23%). The level of financial insecurity in this population is significant: Nearly half (46%) of first gen college students come from homes with a combined annual household income of less than $50,000, and well over three-quarters (82%) have to work full- or part-time jobs while attending college to make ends meet or to help their families financially.

These realities often play out in silence, contributing to the overall sense of “separateness” that first gen students all too often feel. Our findings revealed that because of these additional burdens, mental health support was ranked the most important program or resource that colleges and universities can offer first gen students, more so than even academic support.

During my travels to colleges across the country, I’ve had the privilege of visiting first gen programs led by higher ed administrators that are setting the standard on best practices for integrated and comprehensive student support networks. We need to systematize this approach. As first gen programs continue to be established – and particularly in the absence of affirmative action – higher ed institutions must consider all aspects of the first gen experience and build programs equipped with access to culturally competent therapeutic support and dedicated psychologists, in addition to providing guidance on resume building and interview skills.

It’s a miracle that I didn’t drop out of USC during my first semester and instead white-knuckled it on Xanax and a prayer. Having easy access to dedicated mental health resources and guidance that acknowledged the emotional toll of being first gen would have eased my transition into college, significantly raised my chances of graduating, and validated the normalcy of the overwhelm and disorientation I was experiencing.

We must better support our first gen students, paying special attention to addressing the effects of financial trauma and isolation. When looking for ways to shrink the wealth gap in this country, there are few approaches as obvious as investing in the economic mobility of these students. Yet that investment must align with the needs that first gen students have identified for themselves, even if it requires a more holistic approach that goes beyond the traditional thinking of retention programs.

Contrary to what we’ve been told, getting into a great college is not the measure of success for our First and Onlys. Staying there is.

Source: US News