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Helping First-Generation Students Face Their Fears

Amanda Rauhauser

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Here is some advice — in the words of first-generation students themselves — for parents and supporters to share with their own first-gen students to help them find their fit, face their fears, and make a successful transition to college.

Go on Campus Visits

“Try your best to visit as many colleges as possible to really help your [student] understand what [they’re] looking for. Are they more comfortable in bigger classes? I know I was asked that before I went to college, but it was really hard for me to understand if I was, because how would you know? I only visited two colleges. So, visit as many as you can, and even try to get opportunities to sit in on a class.”

If you're not able to visit colleges, here are some alternatives:

  1. Talk to current college students about their experiences.
  2. Go to college fairs and sessions with admissions officers held at the high school.
  3. Call or email the school’s admission office.

Help your student have some good questions ready first!

Don’t Underestimate Community Colleges

The students I spoke to wished they had been exposed to more than just stereotypes about different types of colleges — specifically the belief that community colleges aren’t as good as four-year schools.

In reality, community college can be a smart, budget-friendly choice for students who want to earn general education credits, explore different areas of study, or get an associates degree or professional certificate.

Community colleges host college transfer fairs and coordinate campus visits to four-year schools so students can explore their options. Taking advantage of all of these benefits can help your student find their perfect fit and save money.

“I wish that people knew that community college is not ‘less than.’ It’s completely the same in the sense that you’re getting your education, you’re getting your career, you’re learning, you’re experiencing things, you’re figuring out what you want to do with your life,” one student explained.

Help Them Consider Options Without Feeling Pressured

When you are considering or starting college, several students told me, “Don’t think that you have to decide right away, because [the field or career you choose] is the most important decision of your life, so if you have the opportunity to try out different things and figure out what you like, then you should definitely take it.” Recognize that finding your fit is a process.

“I made a mistake [choosing my first college] not just because it clearly didn’t work out for me, but because I was pushing it… I just kept trying to go. One of my biggest pieces of advice is, if it’s not working out for you, it’s okay to switch [majors or even transfer]… It’s your education, you’re in charge.”

Be Flexible

First-generation students might also feel more pressure than their peers to prove something, or to complete their degree at the college they start at. Amanda told me, “I felt like I had to, because I had let my whole community know, so I felt like I needed to finish it. But even after I switched and failed a couple times, they still supported me. So they’re still going to support you no matter what. You have to work through what’s really important to you. Is it your image that’s important, or being happy?”

Encourage Them to Ask for Help

Help your student understand that it’s okay to be vulnerable. For students who might feel they aren’t smart enough or aren’t really supposed to be in college, it can be difficult to ask for help — on everything from a tough calculus assignment to struggling with mental health. But, these students say, take advantage of the extra resources you are given as a first-gen student, such as a mentor or tutor.

“Don’t be afraid to look for help and get that help, especially if you’re struggling in school —[mental health issues] might be why.”

“People are here to support you. They’re not here to make you feel lesser than or that you are not as smart …. People have different life paths and that doesn’t necessarily mean that what you chose was wrong and what they chose was right.”

Remind Them How Awesome They Are!

Tell your student often how proud you are of them for making it this far. The determination and resilience they’ll need to get through college will grow out of the skills that have gotten them through high school. They belong in college as much as any other student.

“Before going to college, I would just say not to be scared, because it’s not as intense as you think it’s going to be, and everyone here is, for the most part, a mature adult. It’s a pretty friendly atmosphere.”

"Don’t be afraid, because people aren’t going to be there to ridicule you or make you feel like you’re smaller than them. People are just doing their own thing, and they’re friendly for the most part, and staff’s here to help you, and there are so many resources. There is so much going for you to succeed."

Sharing these stories and tips from other first-gen students with your own student can help them realize they are not alone. The overwhelming amount and complexity of information about colleges, admission guidelines, financial aid and credit requirements can be daunting even for parents who have attended college themselves — let alone parents braving it for the first time to help their student go to college.

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Special thanks to Mike Evans, Director of TRIO (a Federal outreach and student services program designed to identify and provide educational services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds), as well as the many wonderful first-generation students at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon who provided insight and expertise for this article.
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Amanda Rauhauser teaches writing at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, OR. She also tutors high school and college students through the national tutoring service, Varsity Tutors. Amanda graduated from Macalester College and earned a master's in English from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is passionate about improving equity in higher education and college access for disadvantaged students.
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