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What It’s Like to Be a First-Generation Student


People are often surprised to learn that I was a first-generation student. The perception is that someone with my educational background must have emerged from a wealthy family that could help her navigate college admissions.  

As an immigrant child (and a child of immigrants), I received almost no support from my family — not because they did not want to help but because they simply did not know how. Applying to college in the US is a long, complicated process, and, for me, this difficulty was exacerbated by having to do it mostly alone. 

My journey as a first-gen student followed me from a low-income public high school in Miami, FL to Cornell University for undergrad. Many years later, I went to Brown University for my Master’s. I am keenly aware of the privilege my degrees afford me, and I will be forever grateful to these institutions — and their generous financial aid packages — for the intellectual and professional opportunities they have given me. However, I am also cognizant that the application and transition processes, already notorious for the stress and anxiety they induce, were more difficult for me due to lack of guidance and support both as an applicant and, once I made my way to campus, as a student.  

This post will explore my first-generation experience, beginning with the application stage all the way until graduation. In it, I will discuss some of the struggles I faced but also the strategies and resources I used to cope. Since this story is very personal to me, I have centered it around Cornell, my undergraduate institution, but this could apply to first-gen students at any institution. If you are a first-generation applicant or student, I hope that this post helps you as you explore your own path. 

Who Is a First-Generation Student?

You have probably heard the term before, but who exactly is a “first-generation student”? Generally speaking, a first-gen student is someone whose parents did not attend a four-year college. However, this definition is somewhat hazy as different schools define a first-gen student in slightly different ways. For example, at UCLA a first-gen student is someone “whose parent/guardian has not received a four-year U.S. bachelor’s degree,” as opposed to parents who may have received a degree outside of the U.S.

While the exact definition may vary by school, there are a few facts that hold true for most first-gen students: many come from low-income backgrounds and are often navigating the college process on their own because their families don’t have the knowledge, resources, or networks to support them. First-gen students do not always fully take advantage of the resources available on their college campuses because often they do not even know what these resources are or where to look for them. They are also less likely to join clubs or other extracurricular activities, and, when they do, they don’t hold as many leadership positions as other students. This is likely because, in addition to their academic commitments, they also have to take on on-campus jobs to make ends meet. 

There is a lot of speculation about whether first-generation students have an advantage in admissions. Overall, however, the experience can be extremely difficult, so learning to adapt to your campus and using its resources effectively is a must in order to navigate college life successfully as a first-generation college student.

Personal Experience of a First-Generation Student

My educational journey was as rewarding as it was unexpected. I attended a low-income, Title 1 public high school in Miami, FL. Upon graduation, I went to Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and many years later pursued a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University.

I was accepted to many great schools, including Brown, NYU, Williams, and Duke — I still have all these acceptance letters tucked away in my closet, each one reminding me of the hope and excitement I felt as I received them in the mail many years ago. Ultimately, I chose Cornell after attending Brown’s Third World Transition Program (Formerly Third World Welcome) and Cornell’s Diversity Hosting Weekend. I was taken with the natural beauty of Ithaca and was easily convinced that this was the place for me. 

(A parenthetical note: While I enjoyed my time at both Cornell and Brown, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I applied to the Ivy League not because I thought it would be a good fit, but because I didn’t know better. Based on my interests, a smaller liberal arts college like Williams would have likely been a better fit.)

Today, I can say that I loved my four years at Cornell, but the first year was especially challenging. Growing up in Miami, I had never seen snow, and I was not used to daylight disappearing in the early afternoon. Furthermore, balancing a rigorous academic schedule with part-time jobs and making friends was difficult. I was used to getting perfect grades in high school, but the first couple of papers and tests quickly proved that I needed to readjust my studying methods. I felt out of place among students who already had extensive connections and networks, and, because I had to balance so many jobs, I missed out on a lot of campus events and opportunities. 

On the topic of jobs: while I received a full financial aid package to attend Cornell, it included federal work-study. Beginning freshman year, I had multiple on-campus jobs, balancing up to three at a time during my junior and senior years. These jobs, while absolutely necessary for me to be a student, also took away time that I could have used to network, join clubs, or work on different projects. Notably, as a history major, I really wanted to write a thesis, but the History Department’s time requirements made it untenable for me to do so. Upon graduation, the Department asked all seniors majoring in the subject to write a survey about our experiences. I remember clearly explaining that their thesis program was not low-income student-friendly, as the thesis would have prevented me from working, which I needed to do in order to sustain myself on campus. 

College, however, is a balancing act, and by the time I was a sophomore, I was able to manage all my responsibilities and make room for more. In addition to my classes and my jobs, I had the chance to study abroad in Germany as a junior, and I was the proud recipient of a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which funded my research and represented my first publication. I had a close-knit network of friends who supported me through everything: chemistry tutoring, rides to urgent care when I was sick, and, most importantly, moral support when I brought the average down on a math class for the liberal arts that was, ostensibly, really easy.

These indelible friendships were, without a doubt, the highlight of my undergraduate experience. Connecting with peers from all over the world and from different socioeconomic backgrounds taught me that yes, as a first-gen, minority student I did have additional responsibilities that my peers could not fathom. However, we were all trying to fit in and make the best out of a new experience. 

Struggles of First-Generation College Students

There is some debate about whether or not being a first-generation student has a positive impact on admissions. I can confidently say that, at least for me, it didn’t matter: I applied to my undergrad institution about ten years ago, at which time this statistic was not even collected. Whether or not being first-gen has a negligible impact on admissions chances, though, does not negate the fact that the struggles of a first-generation student often begin years before arriving on campus and way before the college admissions process as a whole. 

I was always a good student and took advantage of the multiple AP offerings at my school, beginning freshman year, when I took AP World History, all the way until senior year when I was balancing four APs alongside the editor-in-chief position for my high school yearbook. While my academic performance was great, I can’t say the same for my tests: I didn’t have SAT or ACT prep because I didn’t know about these tests. I was blissfully unaware of their existence — and their importance for getting into an American college — until it was too late to actually prepare for them. But the timing didn’t matter: my family did not have the resources to pay for a tutor. In the end, thanks to generous test vouchers for low-income students, I took the ACT twice, both in the fall of my senior year, still largely oblivious to why I was doing it to begin with.

Tests not withstanding, thanks to my guidance counselor — one for over 2,000 students — I found out about QuestBridge and became a Finalist. Through the program, I learned about many schools and understood that, while local state schools were a great opportunity, I could dream bigger. QuestBridge was also responsible for my first school visit, Windows on Williams, which allowed me to visit Williams College at no cost to my family.

After receiving my acceptances, I was convinced that the hardest part was over. However, once at Cornell, the disparities and cultural barriers between me and my classmates were immediately obvious. In my writing seminar classes, we discussed literary works that many had already read in their private schools. In my history classes, we were debating labor theories that they had already been exposed to in high school. Notably, in my linguistics class, we had to write words using the APA Style. As a non-native English speaker, all my words were written as I pronounced them, and, as it turns out, my pronunciations differed from those of most people. Thanks to this class, I became increasingly acquainted with imposter syndrome: I failed my first linguistics midterm (or prelims, as they are called at Cornell), and I distinctly recall sobbing in my dorm room, wondering if I even spoke English correctly. Similarly, the first paper I ever wrote for college was returned with the following words in scratchy, red handwriting: “Please go to the Writing Center.”

One of the biggest shocks was when the first Thanksgiving came around, a time when an otherwise lively campus became a ghost town, I stayed in my dorm because I couldn’t afford a flight from Ithaca back to Miami. (This story seems to be ubiquitous among first-generation students, as explored by Jeannine Capó Crucet in My Time Among the Whites.) This would happen for every break — the whole campus, including dining halls, came to a standstill. I did not anticipate these closures and struggled to sustain myself for the duration of the breaks. I am eternally grateful for the friends who, understanding this, included me in their family plans for some breaks. Their kindness and generosity will stay with me forever. 

Support for First-Generation Students

So, yes, Cornell was hard. But it was also wonderful, and it taught me a lot about resilience and self-advocacy. 

Whenever I had a question, I reached out to the appropriate office and went to the financial aid and academic advising offices more than most of my peers combined. In particular, I made great use of CAPS, Cornell’s counseling services, where I learned to deal with impostor syndrome and managed all the changes that the university represented for a low-income, first-gen student like myself. 

I didn’t want to just survive at Cornell; I wanted to thrive. To do this, I learned to accept help. Yes, I was deeply offended that my TA had suggested that I go to the Writing Center (after all, I had earned two 5s in the English AP exams!), but I went anyway. The experience was so constructive that I continued to come back, not because someone told me to, but because I valued the advice of the writing tutors. In fact, I appreciated and admired the writing center so much that by the time I was a junior, I applied to work for them and was accepted.

Similarly, I learned to network. One of the greatest advantages of higher education is the networking opportunities that happen on a regular basis. As a first-generation student, I was coming into a university where most of my peers already had an established network through their parents and peers. I knew no one, but I acquainted myself with my college’s career development office, where I also worked for three years. While these spaces are not exclusively designed to help first-generation students, the support and guidance I received here was instrumental to all my undergraduate internships, ranging from PBS in South Florida to Penguin Random House in New York City. From building resumes to prepping for an interview, the A&S Career Development team helped me through every step of my early career. This office also informed me about opportunities to teach abroad and helped me build my application for the JET Program, which allowed me to live in Tokyo, Japan, for four years. 

All first-generation students should remember, though: self-advocacy begins before you arrive on campus. There is a lot more information available now as colleges make greater efforts to reach and support first-gen students. For instance, Cornell’s First Generation & Low-Income Support Group did not exist while I was there, but it is now very active on campus. They offer many events and resources aimed at helping us have an easier transition on campus. Programs like this make me happy, as they show that there is now a bigger effort to make sure that first-gen students feel supported. 

If you’re a first-gen student, look up the colleges you are interested in, and find out what programs they have to help prospective students visit the campus. These programs often offer financial aid, and they are a great way to figure out if the school is a good fit for you. An example of this is Windows on Williams, which allowed me to visit the school at no cost to my family, as mentioned above, and helped me understand what a small liberal arts college experience would feel like. I also visited Cornell and Brown once accepted at minimal or no cost to my family. 

Strategies and Tips for Success for First-Generation Students 

Being a first-gen student looks different for everyone, so please keep in mind that these tips are based entirely on my experience. Reflecting on my years as a student, from the application process to the college journey as a whole, this is my advice: 

  • Talk to your professors. Professors are usually more than happy to speak to you, but it is up to you to make that first effort. Some of the best conversations I had in college came from connecting with professors, and I still rely on some of them when I need recommendation letters. Nourish these connections, and let them know that you care deeply about their class. 
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help. At first, like many undergraduate students, first-gen or otherwise, I was hesitant to speak to my school counselors, both academic and psychological, because I was afraid of being judged (impostor syndrome really is terrible!). Once I got over that initial fear, though, I understood the value of asking for help and was increasingly exposed to all the resources available to me. 
  • Use available tutoring resources. Seriously, college campuses usually offer free writing centers, math and chemistry tutoring, and everything in between. If you need the support, go! And if you are able to help other students, do so!
  • Get acquainted with your campus resources. The Cornell food pantry did not exist while I was an undergrad, but today it has benefitted countless students who, like me, can’t go home for breaks and need support nourishing themselves when dining halls are closed. Many colleges now have similar programs — you’d be surprised at what you can find.
  • Go to your career office. They also really want to help you navigate professional opportunities. From writing a resume to interview practice, your school’s career counselors are invested in your success, and they can help you find internships, establish networking connections, and everything in between. 
  • Take a fun class just because you are curious. You’ll have a lot of time to focus on your major, but college is one of the only chances you’ll have to take a class on pretty much anything you want, so take advantage of it. I took two classes on film, including one on comedy, and I loved them, even though they weren’t in my major.
  • Make friends. College can be really lonely for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be. Talk to the people in your dorms and classes. Explore new clubs. I am still very close to the person I met on my first day of classes, even though she ended up dropping the class where we met. In fact, while I did feel out of place many times, I also met incredible people from all over the world that I still keep in touch with today. Being surrounded by individuals who were brilliant, passionate, and fun was one of the best experiences as an undergrad. 
  • Be kind to yourself. First-gen college students face many challenges — everyone does — so be patient with yourself. You’ll struggle sometimes, and maybe you won’t immediately get the results you want, but this is okay. Use your resources effectively, and you’ll see how much easier the process becomes. 


As the enrollment of first-generation students across the U.S. rises, institutions are making strides toward meeting these students’ needs. If you are a first-generation student–or applying to college as one–research the resources available at your institution. You may be surprised at what you find. And remember: you are not alone. College, especially at the beginning, can be an overwhelming transition for everyone. While making new friendships can be daunting, these are the connections that will be the most meaningful throughout your educational journey. 

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