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Being First Gen

(Taking on New Territory)


Out of about 7.3 million undergrads at 4-year colleges, 20% identify as first-generation. That means 1 in 5 students will be the first in their family to get a bachelor’s degree. And that number is higher for women and nonwhite students.

Everyone struggles to adjust to college, but it’s even harder if your parents haven’t been through the process before. Being first in your family to go to college is like being an explorer. There is no trail to follow, no legacy to live up to. You are it — the brave soul venturing into uncharted territory.

Just Google “first-generation college” and you’ll find many articles detailing the struggle. (It’s real.) Many schools have student organizations founded by other first-gen students to help ease the transition.

Everyone agrees on one thing: as a first-gen student, you must fiercely pursue answers to your questions. Be a relentless beast, hungry for guidance. Go to your professors’ office hours. Camp out at the financial aid office (don’t actually camp out, but you get it). Join study and support groups. Demand what you need, and don’t ever doubt your right to have it.


Ashley Reece, a first-gen student from Rialto, Calif., doubts she could have graduated from the University of Missouri without the assistance from several programs. The AVID (Advanced Via Individual Determination) college-prep program helped her apply to schools; private community scholarships helped with tuition; and the university financial aid office helped her understand student loans.

“Paying for school was a combination of a lot of methods — whatever needed to work at the time to get that bill paid,” says Reece.

She worked two jobs from her junior year on and graduated with $12,000 in student loans, less than half of the national average, according to the Project on Student Debt. “There are some people who can come to college, party, drop out, go home, and live off their parents,” she says. “I didn’t have that choice.”


Far from “disadvantaged,” first-gen students often are self-reliant, community-oriented, persistent and determined — qualities that other students have to work to develop.

First generation female college student sits on ground looking at laptop.

In an essay for Inside Higher Ed, Byron P. White of Cleveland State University writes, “It is increasingly evident that minority, low-income and first-generation students possess experiences and characteristics that make them prime candidates for what a 21st-century college student needs to be.”

Being first requires courage. You will be challenged and pushed in ways you can’t imagine. But that is true of every great adventure story. If you’re one of the many first-gen college students out there: Be bold. You’ve got this.

As always, we’ve got your back. — The On Your Own Team End of article insignia

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by On Your Own, the National Endowment for Financial Education or any of its affiliate programs.]