Opinion: What I Learned as a First-Generation College Student

First-year students pose in front of the Albion Rock with their First-Year Experience (FYE) mentor, Irene Corona-Avila, as a submission to the FYE scavenger hunt. Each incoming class enrolls first-generation students: students whose parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree (Photo by Irene Corona-Avila).

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Pleiad is publishing an opinion article each week that explores topics related to Hispanic and Latinx identity and culture. This week’s article is the third of four articles. Last week’s installment can be read here

The phrase “first-generation student” can have multiple meanings to it. But the one that I stick to comes from the Center for First-Generation Student Success: a first-generation student means that your parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree. 

With this year being my fourth and graduating year at Albion, first-generation student statistics creep in my mind as I seek job opportunities, open apartments, budgeting and other aspects involved in transitioning, finally, as an independent adult. 

A few of the statistics that linger in my mind are:

These small percentages remind me that the odds are against me as a first-generation Chicana, and though being a first-generation student is a part of my identity, these statistics do not define me or what I am capable of. 

As a first-generation student, I was self-motivated to apply to college while surrounded by family members who do not value education the same way I do. Although the US is progressive when it comes to feminism, acculturation can be difficult to adjust to being raised with conservative, Mexican, Catholic cultural values. 

By this age of my life, I am supposed to be married with my first child while staying home in Georgia to take care of my mother, because as the youngest child, it is my responsibility to tend to my parents when they can no longer. Living the “American Dream” is not an easy thing to obtain when your parents still hold their traditional and cultural values from another country.

Leaving a thousand miles away from home to get a college degree felt like I committed a sin because of how strongly familial values are embedded in Latinx cultures. After continuously having uncomfortable and difficult conversations with my family, my feelings of abandonment have slowly eradicated. 

The truth is, as a first-generation student raised with specific cultural morals and values, your family will never be able to understand you fully. But they can try their best if you can have those conversations. 

For my first-generation peers, I compiled three important things that I realized as a first-generation.

Ask for Help, You Need It

For many first-generation students, we did not turn to our parents for support in applying to college. Personally, I came into college with pride knowing how much I was able to do by myself, such as completing FAFSA, submitting my mother’s taxes and other things many non-first-generation students have to do. The reality is that I had to grow up faster than my peers interpreting and translating legal documents, booking my own medical appointments and even introducing the idea of Medicare to my mother. 

As a result, I did not care to seek help because I felt that I didn’t need any support if I was able to get myself this far without it. But, I learned rather soon about autonomy. Despite the major leaps I’ve made with the odds against me, the statistics show how hard it is for Latinx and Hispanics to succeed in the US past college. 

I urge all first-generation students to ask for help, even if you do not know what questions to ask. You cannot succeed all by yourself, help is there to support you in your journey, not to change it. To start, I would suggest joining TRiO Student Support Services. Regardless of how much you think you know, especially for first-generation students, there is so much more unknown to unravel. 

Love Yourself

Being a first-generation student sometimes means that you come from a family that migrated to the US from a different country. With that, some cultures still hold a stigma on mental health. I am here to tell you that you finally have the opportunity to work on yourself, mentally, physically and socially.

Growing up, it was hard for me to pay attention to my feelings because my family prioritized other matters such as financial stability, but your feelings are just as important. Emotional intelligence is imperative to succeeding in college, especially when you don’t have parents to empathize with you completely.

At the end of the day, the only person who you are met with is yourself. I have come to the realization that as a first-generation student, my journey now and beyond will be a battle that I will mostly have to fight for by myself, especially mentally. 

It can be difficult taking care of your mind and body when you come from a culture that does not believe in mental health. But you cannot be physically and socially healthy if you neglect your mental health, and you cannot thrive if you are not taking care of yourself. 

You will know more about who you are, what you need, what you want and your boundaries if you can look after your mental health.

Once you are able to take care of yourself, you are able to find and embrace who you are. Once that happens, it can be one of the most relieving feelings to have.

Do Not Limit Yourself

Imposter syndrome is the sensation of self-doubt regarding your abilities and achievements. It affects many college students and often leads students to settle for less than what they think they can achieve. 

As humans, we naturally compare ourselves to others, but I am here to tell you to STOP. For first-generation Latinxs and Hispanics, imposter syndrome can be easier to fall into with little-to-no-successful people in your field of interest that look or talk like you. 

For most people, it is easier to be in a setting where you feel most comfortable and represented. Sometimes, more often than not, this leads to complacency. For example, I see most of my Latinx and Hispanic fourth-year peers pursue majors in the humanities while I am the only Latina and person of color obtaining a biochemistry degree. 

To my first-generation Latinxs and Hispanics, it’s okay to not be represented in the field you desire, instead be the first. Trust that you will be a role model to all our brown sisters and brothers. 

My Mexican culture taught me about hard work and grit to which I revised to be work hard and smart. I find that these values are homogenous to other Latinx and Hispanic cultural values. You have the potential, do not doubt yourself. 

When you encounter imposter syndrome, think to compete with yourself instead. Evaluate your past and current decisions and outcomes and strive to improve each time. 

It can be hard as a first-generation to take those first steps. But once you have made those steps, I promise that it gets easier. You are your biggest advocate.

About Irene Corona-Avila 41 Articles
Irene is a fourth-year student and a prideful Georgia Peach from Atlanta. She is a biochemistry major with a minor in . Aside from running and writing, you can find Irene dancing freely or talking up a pun. She's currently reading a book on gravity, but she can't seem to put it down.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for such an inspirational story! And congratulations on all you have accomplished 🙂 I admire your persistence, courage, and perspective.

    Although I empathize with, but can never understand what it is like to be from a family so close to immigration, I can relate to the first generation aspect of being a student and many of the challenges that entails. You give wise advice: You are your own best advocate. Ask for help (I lived in office hours persistently for the 5 years it took to get my undergrad degree). Demand help. Try to believe that you *do* belong here (I had imposter syndrome but did know there was a word for it then) – you have earned it! And your second piece of advice is critical (and something that was simply not spoken about in my family or the community from which I came) – to take care of your mental health. Only now, 30 years after graduation with my B.S., do I now see clearly the struggles that I and many of my fellow 1st gen students face daily.

    So uber congratulations and admiration for you and your story. I wish you the very best as you move forward in life:)

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