A First-Generation Student’s Top 11 Tips for Empowering Students Like Her

It’s incredibly important for first-generation students to feel like a valuable part of the campus community.

Being the first in my family to go to college has been full of ups and downs – feelings of inadequacy, pride, frustration, and accomplishment – sometimes in succession and sometimes all at once.

First-gen students tend to have questions, experiences, and extreme doubts about our abilities that other students don’t. And the thing about being first-gen is that not only is there so much to know, but we oftentimes don’t know what we don’t know — until not knowing it causes problems. So first-gen students are expected to be super proactive and learn to teach themselves the way, which can feel quite isolating.

By paying attention to first-gen perspectives and recognizing the needs that come from intersecting underrepresented identities – such as race, ethnicity, class, immigrant status, and family structure – institutions can better understand who holds privileges on campus. Through their everyday work, student affairs professionals can advocate for students of marginalized groups, craft accessible knowledge bases, and make first-gen students know that seeking help is not a problem.

First-gen students need to know that they’re cared for, that they’re not alone, and that they’re more than capable.

Rather than just waiting and hoping for students to feel more comfortable, student affairs professionals can show first-gen students that they’re a valuable part of the campus community, their well-being matters, their insight into the institution is valued, their experiences are valid, and that they truly deserve to be at our institutions.

Here are 11 ways to communicate those vital messages.

My top 11 Tips

1. Use the term “first-generation” early and often

This might seem obvious, but how could a person make sense of their experiences and connect with their community if they don’t realize that there’s a name for it? Defining the term “first-generation” encourages students to identify what it means to them. It’s absolutely critical that students, staff, and faculty understand what it means to be first-gen, so that they create a supportive environment through targeted initiatives.

Staff who are first-gen can help with this, too, perhaps through displaying a magnet or poster in their office, in addition to proudly discussing their first-gen identity and experiences with students.

2. Create support groups

Plugging students into the first-gen community means giving them opportunities to communicate shared personal experiences and get support and affirmation from students like them.

Being the first in one’s family to go to college can mean a lot of things for people. Perhaps, in addition to their studies, they work full-time or support their families financially. Or they might receive little support from their families as they face college’s challenges.

Sharing experiences not only helps build a sense of solidarity, but also can equip students with tools to cope with what they’re facing.

And as they discuss their shared experiences, students may identify ways in which their institution could better support them. Having these groups organized by students, supported by student affairs professionals, or directly facilitated by counseling or wellness staff creates a space for students’ needs to be heard — and then addressed through future initiatives.

These group sessions can take place during orientation or as part of a first-year seminar. Additionally, encouraging first-gen students to plug into other identity-based communities can foster immense solidarity and support.

3. Send out emails and host meals

An email list can be a great way to bring first-gen students together and build community throughout the year, not just in bridging the knowledge gap but at celebrating accomplishments. First-gen students can share experiences and updates, while creating familiarity with staff members who may be good resources for them.

Similarly, eating together can be a great way for first-gen students to share quality time and space together, and can even be part of First-Generation Celebration Day — which is a great time to give out magnets and other celebratory gear for students to showcase their first-gen pride, if they choose to.

4. Encourage community outreach

Being an active part of the community can mean different things to different people, so it’s crucial for students to be encouraged to identify what’s important to them and what communities they want to be involved in. Part of this can be volunteering their time to causes that have personal meaning.  

One way for students to do this, while engaging with their first-gen identity, is to give back to people like them. Doing outreach and mentoring in middle schools and high schools can give current first-gen students an opportunity to process and learn from their positioning and their growth. Supporting younger students, who won’t be going into college with the same benefits as some of their peers, can be highly rewarding for both the mentors and their mentees.

5. Offer one-on-one mentoring

Groups are great for many things, but getting to hear about someone’s personal experiences in an individual setting can also be invaluable. Creating a mentoring program between younger and older students, between faculty or staff and students, or even between alumni and students is a wonderful way to build relationships and show students that they’re not alone. It also gives them the chance to hear that they’re capable of success.

6. Share success stories

Stories that celebrate success are worth collecting, preserving, and sharing. The experiences and learned strategies of upper-level students, faculty, and staff can be presented visually. Having these narratives visible in residence halls and other communal spaces — such as student unions, dining halls, and libraries — expresses an institution’s support for first-gen student success.

These stories should be visually appealing and could include a person’s picture alongside a quote and fun facts about them. Sharing stories publicly normalizes first-gen students’ experiences and affirms these students as part of a larger, successful community. These kinds of opportunities can also be great at reaching students who live off campus. Or, they can serve as strong follow-ups to complement other related programs.

7. Foster peer support networks

Upper-level first-gen students have unique insights into what it’s like — not just to be first-gen in general, but at their institution in particular. First-year students will have to learn many lessons the hard way, but hearing the wisdom and expertise of their peers who’ve been there before can alleviate some of their top worries while creating a sense of community.

Students can share tips and tricks with each other in a document, either by creating a physical list together during a meeting or by drafting it electronically. It can then be sent out through a first-gen email list or during a group meeting.

This could even be part of a bigger, yearlong program wherein upper-level students expand upon the tips they’ve shared, perhaps as frequent panel or a round-table discussions.

8. Create family programs

As student affairs professionals work to make first-gen students feel fully part of the campus community, they shouldn’t forget about the students’ families. That’s because families are likely to not be super familiar with processes around higher education. So it’s essential to create spaces for families to talk about how they’re feeling, ask questions, and be provided with institutional resources.

Family sessions should also equip attendees with content that will serve as a steady reference point for future years. Institutions can also communicate with first-gen families through email lists and create social media groups specifically for them. That way, families can stay connected to support even after an in-person session ends.

9. Reinforce values

It’s easy for first-gen students to feel out of place within their families, as if they’re acting like they’re “better than” them by heading away from home to do something removed from what the family has historically done. For these reasons, it can be helpful for first-gen students to be reminded of why they they’re pursuing their degree, why it matters to them, what their motivations are, and how it fits into their life philosophy.

Recognizing the value that their accomplishment brings to their family, as well as to their discipline’s academic community, brings students a stronger sense of worth and accomplishment.

10. Connect with alumni

First-gen alumni are uniquely able to recognize how being first-gen impacted their time both during and after college.

Having open discussions about their careers can help fill in first-gen students’ potentially-limited views of what’s imaginable for their futures. These limits can be expanded by sharing a variety of different pathways and conveying that no matter what they choose, they are no less valuable or accomplished than their peers. For example, students could be told about financial support options for graduate school and be encouraged to consider working entry-level jobs rather than going to graduate school immediately after graduation.

As first-gen students prepare to enter the workforce, they may feel less “professional” than their peers – meaning they’re likely to carry themselves with less confidence and feel less comfortable in new work environments. Building up confidence and professional skills can be done through mentorship with alumni. They can talk about working through those feelings of not belonging, can help edit the mentee’s cover letter and resume, or roleplay job interviews.

11. Offer info sessions

Filling in the first-gen knowledge gap can start with prospective students, but it ought to continue being a focus throughout their entire time at the institution. Campus offices can boost their approachability by spending time tabling and checking in with students outside of standard appointment times.

Financial aid is one point where clarity can be essentially helpful, since first-gen students may need aid to enroll and continue their studies. They should be informed of potential funding sources, like scholarships, loans, and grants — and then, of course, how to confirm those, submit income information, and find additional community scholarships offered by external sources.


Final Thoughts

Being a first-gen student can be extremely empowering. I’m so excited to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. It’s been a very challenging experience that has helped me grow my strengths and has prompted me to connect with some really amazing people. Learning to support myself, asking for and accepting outside support, and being a source of support for my peers has been quite a rewarding experience.

We hope you will implement some of these strategies. Tweet us @themoderncampus to share what strategies you use. We’d love to hear from you!

Sara Friend

About the author: Sara Friend (she/her) is a former Content Marketing Intern at Modern Campus Presence and a graduate of the New College of Florida. She loved being an RA to first-year-in-college students. She's now a Mentor Manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast. Learn how we can help get your students involved.