Q&A: How to Be Successful as a First-Generation College Student

By Suzanne Lazar, student, SUNY Empire State College, editor, The Student Connection

November 3, 2016

Current 3 First Generation StudentsMany adult students are entering higher education for the first time and as a first-generation student.  While there are everyday pressures that come along with balancing life – work, home and school – being the first of your generation can create more stress. 

At SUNY Empire State College, learning at a distance can be challenging, especially without the traditional college campus, but every location across the state has many face-to-face learning opportunities and a wide variety of tools and resources to help students make the transition into adult learning and student life.

Stony Brook University’s Michelle Curtis-Bailey and FirstGenCollege’s Yolanda Norman talk about how building confidence, developing soft skills and creating a community in your college environment can help first-generation students succeed.  Follow the links in each question throughout the article for short videos on each topic.

Enrolling in college is only the beginning. The path from college freshman to graduate can be rocky for first-generation students.

Compared with their peers, students who are the first to attend college in their families, are often unaware of the financial, social and educational resources that can help them navigate the college admissions process and earn a degree. Federal data show first-generation students are less likely to graduate within six years and experts say they can struggle with feelings of inadequacy and other social and psychological issues like imposter syndrome, which can make the transition to college more difficult.

Despite those challenges, with adequate financial and educational resources, a strong support system and good time management skills, first-gen students can do more than just survive college – they can thrive.

Michelle Carter-Bailey, senior associate admissions adviser at Stony Brook University in New York, and Yolanda Norman, CEO and founder of FirstGenCollege Consulting in Texas, sat down with U.S. News to discuss how first-generation students can overcome common pitfalls, enjoy college and earn a degree.

Q. What do students need to know about managing finances?

Developing relationships with financial aid advisers can help students learn about more money that may become available.

“Make sure they understand you and your financial situation,” Norman says. She encourages students to fill out the FAFSA each year and look for scholarships and grants.  There is financial aid help for first-generation college students.

Q. Where should students turn if they need help finding a part-time job?

An on-campus job may give students the flexibility they need to work and still excel in school, Stony Brook University's Curtis-Bailey says. Look for jobs during the summer before school starts and reach out to the career center if you need help finding a job on or near campus. For students who have to work, make time management a priority and figure out how much time you need to devote to work and school.

QWhat should students do if they get to college and feel unprepared?

Students should seek out support and develop relationships with faculty and peers, Curtis-Bailey says.

When you're sitting in class and you don't understand a concept, don't be afraid to raise your hand," Norman says. "Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Can you explain that differently for me?’ and don’t be afraid once that class is over to say, 'I didn’t really get it. What would your recommendation be to be successful in this class?'"  Find out more about the top 10 secrets of college success.

Q. What should students do if they feel out of place?

The counseling office can be a great resource with students who are struggling with the transition to college, Norman says.

Q. Who should students turn to if they feel like their family doesn’t understand their struggles a first-gen student?

"Students should always lean in to their families," Curtis-Bailey says. She encourages students to be honest and open with their families about how they’re doing in college if they have good relationships with their families.

Q. What can students do in the summer and during breaks to make things easier when they return to school?

Check with the alumni office to look for opportunities to shadow and get exposure to career fields, Curtis-Bailey says.

"Set aside some personal time for yourself to think about what goals you want to achieve for your next step, for the next semester and next year and write it down," Norman says. She encourages students to celebrate the things that they did well and make a plan to improve their areas of struggle, like going to tutoring next semester if they don’t do as well in class.

Q. What can families of prospective first-generation students do now to help prepare them for college?

Summer bridge programs can be a great way to help make the transition to college easier for students, Norma says.

Curtis-Bailey encourages students to look at resources like College Greenlight to learn about fly-in programs offered at colleges, federal TRIO programs and colleges and universities to find programs offered during the summer – many of which are free or low cost.

Fore more information about resources at SUNY Empire State College such as financial aid, on and off-campus jobs, counseling, visit 1 Stop Student Services

This article was originally published in U.S. News and World Report

Other News

Student Spotlight: Caleb Haines, student, SUNY Empire State College, By Suzanne Lazar, student, SUNY Empire State College; editor, The Student Connection

2016 Veteran’s Day Parade – Come March with Us, By Danielle Boardman, coordinator of student life

Creative Corner

Social Corner

Article Contributors

Danielle Boardman

Anita De-Cianni-Brown

Suzanne Lazar

Arthur Ramsay

Take the Next Step

Ready to advance your education and career? There’s no time like the present. Apply now, or learn more about SUNY Empire at one of our information sessions.