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First in the Family: Resources for First- Generation College Students

First in the Family: Resources for First- Generation College Students

Are you a first-generation college student? Navigate the college landscape confidently with this comprehensive resource guide. Inside, we provide invaluable insights and strategies to help first-gen students overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.

In every situation in life, someone has to be a trailblazer. But when you’re the first, this inherently means you can’t benefit from other’s learned experiences. Such is the case with first-generation college students, who step into the world of higher education without the safety net of someone who did it first.

First-generation college students are the first in their family to go to college, and because they don’t have an example to model, they’re sometimes unaware of the resources available to make the most of their college education. For example, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, first-generation college students are less likely to take advantage of career services or extracurricular activities at their school. Yet they’re simultaneously more likely to come from low-income families, be a minority, and/or be a parent.

But that’s why this guide exists. In it, you’ll find big lists of resources for first-generation students, tools, scholarships, and answers to FAQs. Plus, we’ll get the insider school from someone who has walked in these same shoes. Stay tuned — solutions, ideas, and tips are just below!

Online Resources for First Generation College Students

Knowledge is truly power, meaning access to information helps you make the most of your college education. Many of the resources below will provide direct assistance for your college education, but others will relate to issues that more often concern first-generation college students, such as financial and immigration challenges.

  • 22 Tips for First-Year College Students: These tips from Psychology Today are helpful for anyone who’s experiencing college for the first time, whether or not they’re a first-generation college student.
  • American Needs You: America Needs You runs several programs aimed at helping first-generation college students succeed in school and their professional lives, including the Fellows Program and FirstGenU.
  • CampusCompare: This is a free online tool that lets prospective college students compare schools based on a variety of qualitative and quantitative metrics.
  • CareerSpring: Designed for first-generation and lower-income students, CareerSpring provides a variety of career tools, including those to facilitate networking, job placement, and the job-search process.
  • Center for First-Generation Student Success: Although aimed primarily at school administrators and organization leadership, first-generation college students can learn about programs, research, statistical data, and current events that can improve their chances of college success.
  • Collective Success Network: The Collective Success Network uses mentorship, networking, and leadership development to help first-generation and low-income college students achieve their professional and academic goals.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – Paying for College: This guide provides a great overview of how financial aid for college works, but it also provides detailed information about specifics like student loan forgiveness and the benefits of the GI Bill.
  • Council for Opportunity in Education: This organization works with universities and colleges to facilitate the success of low-income and first-generation college students. This includes providing seminars and conferences for education professionals and leadership programs and internships for students.
  • College Board: College Board is a nonprofit organization that oversees many of the standardized tests students use to get into college. BigFuture is a section of the College Board website that provides a host of college planning resources, including special scholarships.
  • College Scorecard: Available through the U.S. Department of Education, this is a comparison guide that lets users search by several criteria, including school name, field of study, academic credential, graduation statistics, and location.
  • EducationPlanner.org: This is a great one-stop-shop about potential careers, paying for college, visiting schools, and selecting the right college.
  • Effective Reading: A large part of studying well is being able to read in an efficient and effective manner. This page offers some great tips to improve reading comprehension and retention.
  • Empowering First-Generation College Students Facebook Page: This is an online community where professors, school administrators, and first-generation college students can come together to ask questions and share their experiences and advice.
  • Federal Student Aid: Most college students rely on federal financial aid to help pay for school. This is the primary source for information about federal student loans and grants, as well as how to apply for them with the FAFSA.
  • The First-Gen Lounge: This is a weekly podcast focused on issues and concerns commonly faced by first-generation college students and professionals, with a special emphasis on support and empowerment.
  • First Generation Foundation: This organization connects first-generation college students with non-profits and institutions of higher learning. It also offers a variety of resources, including a list of specific organizations dedicated to helping students achieve their education goals.
  • First in the Family: This is a great site to find personal stories and solutions from students who overcame adversity to earn a college degree.
  • I’m First!:This resource is aimed at providing support and assistance to those seeking to be (or who already are) the first in their family to attend college. Resources are designed to be both inspirational and informative.
  • Immigrants Rising: This organization focuses on helping California immigrant students get into college and navigate the immigration process. Much of the advice applies to any immigrant student with a dream of a college degree.
  • KnowHow2GO: This is a public-service campaign aimed at helping high school and middle school students prepare for college by following four steps, many of which can be applied to prospective first-generation college students.
  • Mapping Your Future: The site has two sections, with one part dedicated to future college students and the other tailored to educators, school administrators, and family members.
  • Notetaking: Dartmouth College provides not only a list of tips about how students can take more effective notes in class, but also a list of technology-based tools that students can use to take better notes.
  • Rise First: This site helps low-income, first-generation college students make the most of their education by offering a multitude of online tools, such as scholarship databases, college success tips, and a schedule of networking events.
  • Top 20+ Apps for College Students: Grace College curated this list of great apps that any college student with a smartphone or tablet will appreciate. These apps range from study aids to financial tools to organization helpers.
  • United We Dream: The primary goal of this organization is to improve the lives of immigrants and their families. There are special resources dedicated to helping undocumented and DACA recipients get into and pay for college.

Campus Based Resources for First Generation Students

Armed with the online resources above, now it’s time to dive into helpful assistance you’ll find at most colleges and universities. While many of these are available to the entire student body, some will focus on helping certain groups of students, like minorities, first-generation college students, low-income students, and/or students with disabilities. 

When reviewing this list, keep in mind that — depending on the school — they may go by different names or be part of a larger student service or resource.

  • Academic resource center: Sometimes known as the academic success center, here you’ll find resources like tutoring, supplemental instruction, writing support, mentorship, and transfer advice. In addition to in-person assistance, some of these resources may also be available virtually.
  • Career services: Career services will help students find post-graduate jobs, as well as internships and similar positions while still in school. Resources offered from the typical career services office include mock interviews, resume writing assistance, alumni networking, and career planning.
  • Counseling services: Sometimes a part of the student health clinic and referred to as mental health services, counseling services offer students help with personal, emotional, and mental issues or challenges. Services available will vary depending on the school, but even small schools will have trained and certified professionals available.
  • DEI programs: Colleges and universities understand the value of having a diverse student body, so they operate one or more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. These are used to recruit diverse students, support them when on campus, and help them learn and connect with students from all backgrounds. 
  • Disability resource center: The disability resource center helps students with disabilities obtain accommodations so they can fully enjoy and participate in college life. This office will help any student enrolled at the school not just obtain academic accommodations they’re entitled to under the law, but also ensure that students with disabilities are respected and treated like any other student.
  • Financial aid office: Paying for college is a challenge, especially for low-income and first-generation students. That’s why there’s usually a dedicated office to explain the financial aid options and process.
  • New student orientation: Most schools will have an orientation for new students. First-generation students will often find this orientation to be especially helpful, as this will sometimes happen during their first or second visit to a college campus.
  • Student navigation office: This office exists to help new and non-traditional students transition to college life. Navigation coaches or mentors will provide extra assistance to any student who may be less familiar with college life and post-secondary academics.
  • Student organizations: College involves more than just going to class, as you’ll also benefit from the social and community elements that can bring like-minded students together. These organizations often exist purely for entertainment and social purposes, but they can also provide additional support to select student groups, such as minorities or first-generation students.
  • TRIO programs: While the name suggests an acronym, “TRIO” actually refers to three federally funded, on-campus programs that help certain groups of students — Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search, and Special Services (later named Student Support Services). The exact names of the programs will depend on the school, but the programs designed for first-generation students will usually fall under Student Support Services.

Scholarships for First Gen Students

Most college students will need financial help to pay for school. The most desirable form of financial aid is gift-based, meaning it doesn’t need to be paid back. Two common types of gift-based aid include scholarships and grants. 

Below is a list of 10 scholarships that focus primarily on helping first-generation students pay for college. Keep in mind that this list just scratches the surface of what’s available.

  • Chang-Chavkin Scholars Program

    • Amount: Up to $15,000
    • Description and Eligibility: Students from eligible Colorado or Massachusetts high schools must be first-generation college students and have financial need. The award will cover remaining college costs after other financial aid sources have been exhausted.
    • Deadline: Varies
  • Clark Scholars Scholarship

    • Amount: $1,000
    • Description and Eligibility: Offered through the Blue Grass Community Foundation, this scholarship is open to high school seniors from Fayette County in Kentucky who demonstrate community involvement and financial need. Special consideration is given to first-generation college students.
    • Deadline: March 6
  • Clark Scholars Scholarship

    • Amount: $1,000
    • Description and Eligibility: Offered through the Blue Grass Community Foundation, this scholarship is open to high school seniors from Fayette County in Kentucky who demonstrate community involvement and financial need. Special consideration is given to first-generation college students.
    • Deadline: March 6
  • EducationDynamics $10,000 Minority First Generation Scholarship Contest

    • Amount: $10,000
    • Description and Eligibility: This scholarship is open to any individual who is a minority, at least 17 years old, first in their families to go to college, and working towards an associate or bachelor’s degree.
    • Deadline: July 30
  • First Generation Civil Rights Fellowship Program

    • Amount: Varies
    • Description and Eligibility: This fellowship program is for first-generation college students who plan on working in a profession where they can promote social justice. Selected students will have a paid summer internship working with a social justice organization, such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law or the National Immigration Law Center.
    • Deadline: Varies
  • First Generation Matching Grant Program

    • Amount: Varies
    • Description and Eligibility: This grant program offers financial awards to first-generation college students who are also Florida residents and have significant financial need. The exact application process will depend on the school the student is enrolled in.
    • Deadline: Varies
  • Georgia FirstGen Pioneer Scholarship

    • Amount: $1,000
    • Description and Eligibility: An applicant must be a high school senior, first in their family to go to a two- or four-year college, and have at least a 3.0 GPA. Extra consideration will be given to applicants who have significant community involvement.
    • Deadline: Varies
  • IFSA First-Generation Scholarship

    • Amount: $2,500
    • Description and Eligibility: The Institute for Study Abroad provides this scholarship to cover the travel and housing costs of first-generation college students who wish to study abroad. Winners of this scholarship will receive academic and pre-career support as well.
    • Deadline: Oct. 1
  • TMCF Walmart Foundation HBCU First Generation Scholarship

    • Amount: Up to $6,200
    • Description and Eligibility: This scholarship is open to those who are first in their family to go to college and are enrolled as a freshman at a Thurgood Marshall College Fund member-school. Awards will be made based on academic achievement and financial need.
    • Deadline: May 12

Challenges Facing First-Generation Students

Below is a list of hurdles faced by many college students. While these are by no means exclusive to first-generation students, they tend to be more prevalent for this group. Besides identifying some of these challenges, we also provide potential solutions and advice for overcoming hurdles.

  • Lack of Family Support

    A lack of family support could be the result of one or more absentee parents or family members. But what’s also likely is that close family members want to support first-generation college students, but because they’ve never been to college, their support may lack concrete solutions or suggestions. 

    Luckily, there are other sources of support. The college may have mentors or advisors to help a specific group of students. There may also be student organizations that can teach students how to advocate for themselves and obtain what they need without having to rely on someone else, like a family member. One example of such support: the First Generation Student Center at the University of Nevada, Reno.

  • Financial Concerns

    Financial worries are unfortunately the norm for many college students. However, the financial concerns of first-generation college students may seem more overwhelming to this group based on several factors. 

    In recognition of this, many nonprofit organizations and companies offer scholarships for first-generation college students. And if they don’t offer the scholarship, grant, or other form of gift-based aid themselves, organizations like Rise First have curated a list of scholarships where first-generation college students receive special consideration. For additional first-generation specific scholarships, please see our list of scholarships above.

  • Lack of College Readiness

    If you were accepted into college, you likely have what it takes to succeed. But there may be certain academic subjects for which you could use reinforcement or skills you might be lacking to make the most of your college education. The good news is that this can be readily overcome as long as you’re aware that you might need extra help with preparing for college. With this awareness, you can often get help from a teacher, guidance counselor, or school official at your college. Also look for ideas and resources provided directly by universities, like this list of 5 Tips for First-Gen College Students from Boston University.

  • Lower Confidence or Imposter Syndrome

    Imposter syndrome refers to the idea that, despite one’s skills or knowledge, they don’t deserve what they’ve accomplished and that somehow, they’ll be exposed as “frauds.” First-generation college students may be more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome or otherwise lack confidence to do well in college. 

    The first thing for students to acknowledge is that this feeling can affect anyone, regardless of where they come from or how they grew up. Additionally, being the first in the family to go to college is something that should inspire a great sense of pride. Finally, it’s important to know that asking for help is okay and doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be where you are. 

    It may also help to take part in special programs designed for aspiring first-generation college students, like the Social Impact Fellowship from Close the Gap Foundation. This program finds mentors for juniors and seniors in high school to boost their confidence and achieve their lifelong dreams.

  • Discrimination or Racial Disparities

    Many first-generation college students are also members of ethnic or racial minority groups. So it’s no surprise that they may feel a higher level of discrimination once on campus. 

    Reaching out for help is important, which might involve talking to a professor, dean, or other school official. Many schools have special individuals, departments, or offices to deal with these issues, such as a chief diversity officer or equal opportunity compliance coordinator — like this one at Fordham University. If the problems still persist despite asking the school for help, taking additional steps, like filing a complaint with theU.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, may be necessary.

  • Feeling Isolated or Alone in Your Challenges

    One of the worst ways to deal with adversity is to do it alone. Remember, chances are pretty high that there are many more first-generation college students attending the same college or university. There may already be a student organization that focuses on creating a sense of community with first-generation college students or those from similar backgrounds. And if there’s not, most schools are open to students creating one. 

    There are also online communities to provide support and advice, such as theEmpowering First-Generation College Students Facebook Page. If they can’t find a solution to a specific problem, they can at least make first-generation students feel less alone or give them a place to vent.

Interview with a First-Generation Student

Amber Wilichowski

Amber Wilichowski was a first-generation college student. The 25-year-old native of Northwest Arkansas has a passion for creativity and communication. She pursued her academic journey at Northwest Arkansas Community College and later transferred to the University of Arkansas, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a focus in advertising and public relations. Currently, she works as a social media manager at AM Group in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
  • Q. How did you navigate the college application process without prior family experience to tell you what to expect?

    A. I relied heavily on what my friends were doing to navigate the process of applications and scholarships. I wasn’t sure when the right time was to start applying for school, so I asked my friends to see what they were doing. I was always a bit behind with this method, which made me anxious, but utilizing their timelines was imperative. When my friends got accepted or rejected for admissions, I expected mine to fall a few weeks behind, which they did!

  • Q. Tell us about any specific challenges you faced that were unique to being a first-generation student.

    A. Challenges I faced due to being a first-generation student were that I wasn’t sure what timeline I should be following, I didn’t know how to apply for loans or grants to help with school, I didn’t know how to navigate student housing, and overall, I just felt lost. I felt very insecure in every decision I made, from admission to degree choices, because I only had my friends to compare to. My family was incredibly supportive that I went to school, but that also made me feel even more pressured to work everything out.

  • Q. What did you find to be the most valuable support during your time in college?

    A. The most valuable support I felt during college was from my parents and my friends. My parents celebrated me every time I completed a semester, and my friends were always there to validate my feelings and experiences.

  • Q. Did you encounter financial obstacles while attending college? How did you overcome them?

    A. I encountered many financial obstacles while in school. I earned two scholarships before I started college, one being a one-year scholarship and the other I lost within three semesters because I didn’t read the fine print. Through the FAFSA process, I was offered student loans that I didn’t know how to navigate, and they didn’t cover my full tuition. Because of this, I had to pay for half of my tuition each semester. Some semesters I was able to pay for by working; other times, I had to put it onto a credit card. I worked as close to full time as possible throughout my five years in school to pay for my expenses, and at one point worked three jobs while taking summer classes. I am still paying off the credit card — so I wouldn’t recommend doing that!

  • Q. If you could change anything about your college experience, what would it be and why?

    A. If I could change anything about my experience, I would have gotten the whole experience. I would have gone to the university straight out of high school instead of the community college as I feel like I missed out on some of the traditional college experience with the route I took.

  • Q. If you could offer one piece of advice to a first-generation college student, what would it be?

    A. Go for the full experience if you can — because you only live it once, so try it all out. If you hate it, change it, but don’t miss out on things you won’t ever be able to do again. This might sound like bad advice, but I would be willing to pay for more life-long memories if I had the means to do so. Quite literally, YOLO!