First Gen College Beginnings and Endings


As the school year begins, many first gen college students are heading off to college for the very first time. Many are the first in their families to go to college, or to attend a four-year university, or to leave home/town to attend college.

There are so many expectations, so much anticipation, and a fair amount of uncertainty. They have so much new ground to cover, many new experiences to face, to make sense of and to integrate.

I asked a group of first gen college students who were heading to college for the first time to share some of their thoughts about the process. First, I asked them why they were going to college. As you might expect, they hope for personal growth and increased opportunities. “I want to expand my horizons and grow as a person.” “ I want to take advantage of the opportunity of pursuing a higher education.” I am going to college “to have a better life.”

Yet first gen college students often feel an added sense of purpose and responsibility. They are aware that going to college isn’t just about them, it also has meaning for their families and their communities. “I have many reasons for attending college, including to make sure my parents’ hard work isn't in vain and making my parents proud.” “I want to make a difference in my family and set a role for my siblings.” and “With higher education, I will be able to be help others in need.”

Understandably, they are excited and they are scared. They look forward to meeting new people and broadening their horizons, and they are afraid of being in over their heads. Here are some things that are on their minds.

I am most excited about:

  • Meeting diverse people!

  • Making lots of connections and getting involved on campus.

  • I am excited to expand my knowledge and use what I learn to change the world.

  • Independence, meeting new people of all backgrounds, learning more about myself and my abilities.

I am most afraid of:

  • Having to deal with feelings of homesickness.

  • Feeling as if I do not belong in the institution I will be attending.

  • Failing and not being able to pick myself up.

  • Getting intimidated too fast.

  • Feeling as if I don't belong there because I don't feel smart enough.

  • Culture shock.

  • I fear I won't be able to make friends, I fear I won't be smart enough for college, I fear I won't be able to pay for it and have to drop out after all the work I did to get in.

  • Feeling alone

My hopes and expectations:

  • I expect to grow as an individual and I hope to learn to overcome all obstacles that I will encounter.

  • I hope to make friends and connections and gain knowledge.

  • I hope to travel, meet new people, learn about the world, decipher my purpose in the world, and learn about my identity as a Latina.

  • I really hope to find myself, just how everyone says that people do.

  • I hope to get a broader perspective of the world as a whole and be more open minded and welcoming when meeting new people.


While many are just beginning their college journeys, at the same time, other first gen college students graduated last spring. Having accomplished this meaningful milestone, they are working to internalize what it means for them to now be college graduates, or to have graduate degrees now.

Like those who are beginning college, first gen college grads also feel a sense of connection and responsibility to their families and communities. They know how much their graduation means to others.

I asked a group of recent graduates how they are feeling about their graduations and what lessons they have learned. Here are some of the highlights.

Graduating means:

  • The sacrifices both my parents made to come to this country were validated. My parents left everything behind and it was worth it, made their dreams come true.

  • It feels surreal. I never actually imagined this moment happening. It means a lot more to my family because I'm the first one.

  • It means success. #sisepuede

  • I did not realize how special and life changing graduating from college can be.

  • My graduation meant overcoming my greatest obstacle. It meant celebrating my biggest accomplishment and closing another chapter in my life.

I also asked them to reflect on the ways that they changed in college.

  • College has provided me with the confidence to be able to work through problems and difficult moments in life. It allowed me to understand my strengths but also weakness.

  • College has given me the tools to continue on with my education while I help others work towards their goals.

  • I grew in every way possible. I learned to navigate a space my family is completely unfamiliar with.

  • I feel that college opened the doors and avenues to places I never imagined. It pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and become the person I am today.

And finally, I asked them to share the lessons they learned from college:

  • As a first generation student, I can look back and understand the importance of support programs and mentors. It's important to pass down what I have learned and not hold information that could be useful to anyone else. It's important that we share our stories.

  • No matter what life throws at you, you have to continue to push forward and persevere because there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

  • It has been one of my biggest battles but I do not regret one minute of it.

The start of a new school year can be a time for reflection, a chance to take stock of where we’ve been and where we are headed. All of us have started new chapters in our lives and ended others at some point, and we know the range of emotions that come with new beginnings and endings.

Yet it can be easy to forget what it feels like to stand at the crossroads of a new phase of our lives. First gen college students reflecting on these junctures have valuable insights and perspective to share with others. I appreciate the opportunity to hear their voices.

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