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My Experience as a First-Generation College Student

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Aaliyah sits on a bench with her mom and smiles on the campus of the University of Massachusetts

I am a first-generation college student. As defined by the Common Application Systems, this means that neither of my parents completed a baccalaureate degree. Nearly a third of undergraduate students in the United States are first-generation and here at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, about 25 percent of the population of each entering class is first-generation, revealing that a majority of college students are not first-generation. This means that many college students likely have a parent or relative that understands the collegiate process firsthand and can provide mentorship throughout the student’s journey — a huge resource that many first-generation students lack. It is hard to navigate college and the difficulties that come with it on your own, especially when your own parents do not understand what it is like in your shoes. Being first-generation comes with many challenges and benefits. Here is what my experience has been like as a first-generation college student at UMass Amherst. 

The Challenges: Lack of Understanding, Doubt, and Finances

Lack of Understanding: My parents do not understand what it is like to be a university student. While they have grown more knowledgeable and sympathetic to my situation, they are unable to relate to my experience first-hand. While my parents are always more than willing to listen to my rants about school work, clubs, internships, and just about anything school throws my way, they have difficulty truly understanding it all. They could not understand why I was struggling to balance a job, strong academics, and a social life, which was frustrating at times. Thankfully at UMass Amherst, I met other first-generation students who I could confide in and understood what this experience was like, making the situation easier to deal with. 

Doubt: When I first was applying to colleges, my parents were unsupportive of my career path. To them, they just could not understand what I was possibly going to do with an English degree, especially considering the financial struggle it was to send me to college in the first place. They pushed for me to major in nursing or something health-related, a successful and well-paying career in their eyes. Since they had not gone to college, they struggled to understand the value in other career paths. While I understood their concern, it is very difficult to have your own parents doubt your passions. My parents only realized that I could have a successful career with my major once I started landing good-paying opportunities, which was a difficult road to reach. The SBS Office of Career & Professional Development helped guide me through my career path, and gave me the resources to explain to my parents the benefits and flexibility of my career choices. In a difficult conversation like this, I am extremely thankful to have been best equipped with the resources I needed to tackle these conversations. 

Finances: Paying for college has not been easy. Even applying for Federal Student Aid can be an extremely intimidating process when you are doing it for the first time. An already nerve-racking process turned into a nightmare when my parents struggled to understand why all this specific documentation for aid was needed, since they had not gone through this before, something that I did not even know the answer to. It can be frustrating to try to explain to your parents why you need all this information when you yourself have no clue what you are doing. Thankfully the Bursar’s Office at UMass Amherst has always been extremely helpful with any of the millions of questions I had about aid, scholarships, and paying for college, which took a lot of stress off myself and my family.

The Benefits: Unity at UMass 

While my parents may not be able to relate to my time at college, my support system at UMass Amherst does. I was fortunate to join the Academic Fellows Program my sophomore year, a program designed to provide specialized opportunities and guidance for first-generation, ALANA, and other historically underrepresented undergraduate students in the UMass College of Social & Behavioral Sciences. It is easy to feel isolated as a first-generation student, but AFP provided me with a sense of community with other first-generation and underrepresented students that I so desperately needed. You really take for granted how important it is to surround yourself with those that understand you until you no longer have that, hence why I am so grateful I joined AFP. Outside of the Academic Fellows Program, UMass Amherst has a multitude of different resources for first-generation students. From mentors, academic connections, and financial resources, UMass Amherst is here to support first-generation students like myself, which is crucial to our journey as college students. I do not know what I would have done without the support I received from UMass Amherst.

Being a first-generation college student has been a grueling challenge. Despite this, I am thankful for what being first-generation has taught me — independence and resilience. Without having to conquer the struggles of being first-generation and without the guidance that UMass Amherst has provided me throughout this journey, I do not believe I would be the person I am today. 



Life at UMass
Transitioning to College

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