Life As A First Generation Student

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Let’s take a mental trip back to high school – I know, we’re trying to move forward from those four years of teenage awkwardness but bear with me. Remember that girl in your English class who’d always flip her hair and say things like, “Well, I visited my sister’s dorm this weekend and I just can’t wait for college” or “I’m going to (insert university) because my entire family has gone there.” Remember her? Well, I definitely was not her. As far as I was concerned everything I’d seen about college came from crappy teen movies and no one in my family had gone to college – until me, that is. While I may be a first generation college student, it has in no way hindered my college experience. It’s just made it a bit more…unique.

During my freshman year of college three words that perfectly described me were stressed, depressed and boy band obsessed (hi, Harry Styles). Stressed because I was suddenly thrust into this unknown world of college. Depressed because it was my first time being away from home. Boy band obsessed because One Direction existed and come on… College was something so new to me that I felt completely lost and all alone. Since no one in my family had gone to college before I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call my mom to ask her what I should do about my schedule or where the best place to buy books was. I was on my own in that department.

Deep down, I envied the girl who lived next door with an older sister on campus to help guide her in the right direction. But you know what? I’m not the only one who’s gone through this. As every first generation college student knows, you learn and things get better. You just have to make a few mistakes along the way.

Initially, one of the things I struggled with the most was finding a way to relate to my parents. Of course they were incredibly proud of me for continuing my education, but at the end of the day they were new to this too and it was up to me to tell them all about my experiences. My dad, a man of few words, would always ask “How’s school?” and I would reply with the generic “good.” Since he didn’t know what I was going through I figured I shouldn’t bombard him with my rants about how I got lost on the first day of classes or how I couldn’t stand one of my TA’s. Unbeknownst to me, parents actually like hearing about all this stuff (who knew?). As the year progressed I started sharing more about my classes and all the things I was learning. Sure, they might not know firsthand what I’m going through, but that doesn’t mean they won’t listen or continue supporting me.

I remember packing for college two days before I actually left – procrastination at its best. My mom was more worried than I was, if that was even possible. She’d burst into my room holding various household items asking if I thought I’d need them. If she had it her way, she’d probably send me off with 99% of our kitchen’s contents. Finally we decided to consult Google and came up with a list of common items to pack for college, but even then she was worried that I wasn’t taking enough things. Face palm. At the time all I remember feeling was anxiety as my mom and I rushed around the house, collecting things to put into my suitcase and then struggling to actually get it to close. Looking back, the whole process would have gone a lot smoother (and less stressful) if either of us knew what to expect, but in a strange way we bonded over our complete cluelessness of dorm room essentials. Part of me always thought that being a first generation college student would somehow make college more difficult because I had no idea what to expect, but I’ve learned to embrace it.

I have two younger brothers and I love knowing that I’m setting a good example for them. My four year old brother always tells me, “When I get older, I want to go to your school so you won’t be all alone.” He thinks I’ll still be here when he’s ready for college. He’s adorable. I’m counting the days until he gets older so I can proofread his college essays and give him my unsolicited advice on all things college since obviously by then I’ll be an expert on everything. I may not have had someone to help me with college related issues but I like knowing that at least my brothers will have me around when the time comes.

Being a first generation college student definitely has its perks. First, there are scholarships specifically for first generation students. Who doesn’t love free money? And many colleges have programs geared towards first generation students where you can meet other people in the same boat as you, so you feel less alone. The ultimate perk? Your parents love you and brag about you nonstop. No family get-together would be complete without my mom telling everyone about everything I’m doing in college. Not to toot my own horn or anything but I’m practically a celebrity in my family. Don’t tell anyone but I secretly love hearing my family brag about me. It makes all the struggles worth it.

Elizabeth is a junior at University of Washington majoring in Journalism and Comparative Literature. She's always trying to be less sarcastic and always fails miserably. One time she met George Clooney and everything in the world made sense for those precious three seconds.

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