How to Succeed as a First Gen College Student


college graduate

College Tales

On March 25th, 2016, I had a 10-page paper due in one of my hardest classes. It was a rhetoric class, and to this moment, I could even tell you the teacher’s name. I worked my butt off, and even started the paper early.

At the same time, I was carrying a whole person. 7-pounds of Diairi sitting on my pelvis, making me waddle like a penguin everywhere I went. She decided to take her time and arrive a week after her due date, like the diva she is.

The day before all the drama went down, I went to work, ran errands, and went home to finish the paper. My contractions started slowly, but got worse by that night. My husband told me to go to the hospital, but I told him I was fine because I had a paper to finish. Let me tell y’all. By 11 PM, my contractions were killing me, but the fear of failing this class was even scarier.

By 11 AM, Diari was making her entrance into the world, and by 2 PM, this mama was back to writing that paper. By the deadline at 11:59 PM, the paper was submitted and I was on my way to becoming a first-generation college graduate – BOOM!

First generation college student

That crazy experience pretty much sums up my educational career. As I walked across the stage this past weekend, I remembered every struggle, including my own (juggling marriage, school, and a full-time job) as well as my parents’ (whose hard work made it all possible).

As first-generation immigrants and college students, many of us are forced to make our way through school with fewer or no resources and we often don’t have someone to guide us. I had to sign my own permission slips, get myself to school, and take care of daily responsibilities because my parents had to work. I relied on myself to find resources and guidance in other places because my parents were worried about other things, like putting food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads.

Graduation dress

Lessons I Learned and Tips for First-Gen Students

Search for scholarships and apply! There are so many scholarships that go unclaimed each year! There is a story at my school that a guy applied for a scholarship that was originally meant for pregnant women. Apparently he got it because no one else applied! Y’all, my pregnant butt could’ve definitely used that money.

Find mentors, within the school (I wish I had made connections with more faculty, students, and organizations of color) and outside of school (look for people within your city in the field you want to explore).

Be responsible. Don’t be a follower and don’t wait for people to do things for you. Many of us first-gen students do not have the guidance of a parent or adult, so we have to forge our own paths. Do not be tempted by what your friends are doing.

Do your own research: NEVER rely on school counselors. They often have other students to worry about, so you will never be a top priority. You have to make yourself a top priority. Search for the right schools, classes, and education programs that are best for you. Talk to your counselors for a starting point and accept resources as they come, but don’t rely on that alone.

Take classes you enjoy. We are so pressured to study medicine, law, nursing, or engineering, but most of us don’t even like those fields or even end up using those degrees. If you enjoy math and science, good for you! But if you don’t, remember that this is your life and you don’t want to end up at a job you hate. As the saying goes: work in a field you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

Go to graduation! It might seem like a lot of time, work, and money. But for many first-generation students, this accomplishment does not come easy. So celebrate it! Celebrate YOU. 

In the words of our aunt, Ms. Viola Davis: You is kind. You is smart. and You is important.

First generation college student