“My parents didn’t go to college, and so they never really talked about us going to college. And, financially, they didn’t plan for us to go to college,” said Leigh Ann Ledford, Product Manager at Peterson’s. Ledford’s story is that of a non-traditional, first-generation college student, who, through self-funded education and diverse experience, was able to successfully navigate her career in software.

There are many students–33 percent as of recent statistics–who take on higher education as a first-generation college student. However, students who are the first in their families to attend college, known in the admissions world as first-generation students, face a variety of challenges that their peers may not experience. Academic adviser at Northern Illinois University, LaBrian Carrington, has worked with many first generation students and explains that while first-generation students often have different challenges from the rest of their cohorts, it’s rarely predictable.

“First-gen is so multi-layered because you have first-generation traditional students, first-generation non-traditional students, first-generation white students, and first-generation minority students. So it’s really not a cookie cutter answer because every student is dealing with different things,” said Carrington.

One commonality, however, includes barriers to entry for higher education. Often, parents who did not go to college do not see the value of higher education, and therefore do not support their children’s education financially, or otherwise. Ledford shared how, as her parents were able to be successful professionals without a degree, she initially didn’t see college as the right path for her. She began working full-time after graduating high school as a customer service representative.

“I was lucky because this particular call center was run by a giant advertisement agency. So I was exposed to a lot of professionals, and I was taking community college classes along the way,” said Ledford.

Being around these professionals was important for Ledford’s career development and drove her desire to leverage her own career. Ledford took community college classes to explore career options, paying out of pocket and through tuition reimbursement provided by her company. But, she had yet to complete a degree. After over 10 years of working her way up in companies, she decided that she wanted to finish her Bachelor’s degree to increase her opportunities.

“I was doing well, but at the same time I felt like when it came to salary, or if I went to another company, I would always be starting at the bottom and having to prove myself for years before I got the high-paying job. In parallel to all of that I decided I needed to finish my degree, so I went to the University of Phoenix,” said Ledford.

Ledford was able to complete her Bachelor’s degree in a non-traditional manner, and managed being a full-time student while continuing to work full-time. She explained that this juggle as well as the financial burden was her main struggle. Ledford also shared how, while her parents were supportive in her decisions, she sought out experienced mentors early in her path, which benefited her career and educational journey. These mentors were people she met in her career as well as instructors she talked with while she was attending community college.

Ledford’s story is representative of a non-traditional, first-generation student, but there are also many first-gen students that decide to go the traditional route. Starting the process of applying to a four-year-college comes with its own set of barriers.

“Students who are first in their family to go to college may not have access in their schools or at home to individuals who are familiar with the admissions process,” explained Maria Laskaris, who is a former Dartmouth College admissions advisor, and currently works as a private counselor at Top Tier Admissions.

This limited access to college information can mean that students don’t understand how to go through the college admissions process.

“When I think about the challenges that first generation college students face, it’s a lack of information on how the process works, what the time tables are, and how to begin the search process,” said Laskaris.

Since first-generation students usually aren’t able to look to their parents for higher education advice, experience, and guidance, these students must find a mentor elsewhere. Carrington explained how he, as an advisor, often serves as a mentor to these students, similar to what Ledford experienced in her career.

“How I deal with [challenges of first generation students] is to listen to the students, and I have to advise the students on their situation–not necessarily as a whole. It’s important to have an advisor that is willing to hear students and be able to talk with them about the things that they’re going through because it could be financial, it could be transportation, it could be living arrangements. It has so many different layers,” said Carrington.

Laskaris explained that this question of finances is something she sees at the forefront of many first-gen student’s’ minds. With continuously rising tuition costs, this is a valid worry. Laskaris said that the main way she works with students on overcoming this issue is through financial aid. College admissions or financial aid offices, as well as high school guidance counselors, can be great resources for understanding the process and applications for financial aid.

As for non-financial support, there are several other on-campus resources to help first-generation students adjust. One way for all students, but especially first-generation students, to create a supportive community for themselves is to join a student organization, as many first-gen students struggle being away from home. This could be a cultural center, LGBTQ group, fraternity or sorority, or even just a group of students that likes to play kickball. Students are also able to start their own groups if there isn’t one with which they directly identify. Additionally, support groups for specific student types, such as a college parents group for students that have children of their own, help form relationships and a support system where they can exchange things like childcare ideas during class time.  

There are also resources for students to help with specific academic issues, general problems, and professional development. Carrington gave the example of a first-gen student who was having trouble keeping himself accountable.

“He liked the accountability factor he had when he was in high school, but when you’re in college you don’t have that. So, you have to be intentional about finding those resources that are going to help you,” said Carrington.

Many campuses offer tutoring that may be free or reduced in price if a student is struggling with their academics, and the counseling center is an option for more general issues such as stress.

Carrington described college counseling centers as “underrepresented but highly in demand. So many students are now coming in with issues that have derailed them because they didn’t have a system. First-generation students specifically don’t use the counseling center because it’s a taboo. But I try to explain that they help you with de-escalating issues, they help you with anxiety, they help you with stress.”

Beginning college is often a struggle on its own for first-generation students, but thinking beyond college helps to see the bigger picture. On-campus professional development and mentoring groups can assist students in working towards their professional and academic goals. Additionally, these groups are helpful in keeping students motivated.

Of course, professors can also be a great resource, and help keep students accountable if they are engaged. Utilizing office hours is an easy way to connect with professors.

High school students who are considering becoming a first-generation college student oftentimes are able to get a head-start by getting involved with the national trio programs. These programs are available at many high schools and help students navigate higher education through tutoring, mentoring, and other programs, including overnight campus visits that allow students to get a taste of college life.

“Students who are in these programs have a taste of what it’s like to be away from home, so they are a little bit more successful than students who are thrown into this thing called higher education, cold turkey,” said Carrington.

Unfortunately, these programs aren’t available on every high school campus. However, students are able to reap some of the benefits of these programs of their own initiative.

“For students who don’t have the opportunity to be in a trio program, it’s important for them to talk to their counselors and get some insight on what’s expected. Doing some college visits and asking about the resources that are offered [can be helpful], so that they understand that going into higher education, there is support,” said Carrington.

First-generation students often don’t receive the same support that many of their peers have access to, primarily because they can’t draw on the experiences of their own family members. . Yet, by seeking out campus and community resources students can find some of the support they need, whether this be from peers, mentors, or professors.

“In order to really move forward on opening access to higher education to students who are first in their families to go to college, I don’t think it’s enough to just stop at the admissions process,” said Laskaris. “There’s a lot of emphasis on preparing students to apply and making sure they understand how the process works, but once they get in, I think there’s a great deal of mentoring and guidance that’s needed to help them succeed.”