Navigating College as a First-Generation Student

What does it mean to be first generation?

We could use the Wikipedia definition, which defines first generation as being “an immigrant born abroad, or the child of an immigrant, born in the target country.”

We could use the Academic/Collegiate definition, which generally refers to a student whose parent(s) have not completed a four-year college or university degree.

These textbook definitions, however, fail to acknowledge the complex experience that comes along with being “first-generation.” Each and every one of us have our stories, our desires, and our responsibilities. While I cannot speak for all first-generation students, I hope that by sharing a little about my experience as a first generation Asian American student, others can find solidarity in my story. 

My family immigrated to the United States from China in the 1980s. Like millions of other immigrant families, my family arrived in the United States without knowing a single word of English. My parents, who were unable to finish their high school education before coming to America, had never even stepped foot onto a college campus. And yet, I felt the weight of my obligation to successfully attend and graduate from college before I fully understood what college was. 

Despite this constant emphasis on the importance of college, I felt woefully unprepared when it came time to seriously consider and prepare for college. While my family was able to emphasize the importance of going to college, they, understandably, provided little to no tangible advice on how to go to college. Now, having been in college for two years, here’s the advice I can offer: 

  1. Have open conversations with your family.

It’s so important to have open conversations with your family about college. Discuss the finances. How will you pay for college? Do you need to take out loans? Discuss your career prospects and professional goals. What major or career do you truly want to pursue? How will you articulate your decisions to your family? College is a stressful time. From the application process to actually attending college, there will be dozens of obstacles and stressors that come across your path along the way. By having open communication with your family, you will be able to mitigate some of that stress.

  1. Have open conversations with your peers. 

The college process can feel lonely and confusing. By regularly interacting with your friends, siblings, and peers, you might discover that they are facing similar challenges as you or have surpassed those challenges and might have advice to offer you. Never assume that you are alone. There are millions of people who have walked the path of college before you and have guidance to share. 

  1. Network wherever you can. 

Networking sounds intimidating but it doesn’t have to be. A common misconception about networking is that it only counts when you’re talking to accomplished professionals in the field or CEOs of companies. Networking, however, can be as simple as joining student organizations and establishing new relationships within the organization. Hanging out with friends, and subsequently meeting friends of your friends, is also an example of expanding your network. You can also network through social media platforms such as LinkedIn. College is one of the best times to expand your network and you never know how these connections might end up benefiting you in the future. 

  1. Take advantage of the resources around you.

Colleges pour thousands of dollars into resources in order to help their students succeed and excel. From career centers to academic advisors to tutoring programs — these are just some examples of the resources that are for you. Take advantage of them while you are still in college and decide for yourself which are most helpful to you.


By Jenny Li
Jenny Li Senior Peer Consultant