5 Things All First-Generation College Students Should Know
Story Student Success

5 Things All First-Generation College Students Should Know

Michelle Baik

Being the first in your family to pursue higher education can be daunting. Here are some encouraging pieces of advice as you enter college.

5 Things All First-Generation College Students Should Know

Ask an upperclassman to be your mentor; you may find that hearing their experiences about balancing school and life can help you do the same. Photo courtesy of CSU Monterey Bay


There's no question that first-generation college students face some unique challenges compared to their peers whose parents or grandparents attended college.

That's why we asked CSU experts for some sound advice aimed specifically at helping first-generation college students succeed during their college career at the California State University.

Maria Estela Zarate, Ph.D., professor of educational leadership at CSU Fullerton and a former first-generation college student herself, and April Grommo, Ed.D., director of Enrollment Management Services at the CSU Chancellor's Office, weigh in with their advice on the habits they've seen help first-generation college-goers the most.

1. DO sit in the front of the room in your classes and join discussions.

Paying attention during lectures is only part of doing well in class. It's also important to engage in discussion if you want to maximize your learning. "While reading for your next class, come up with one to three statements or questions that you could post in class," recommends Dr. Zarate. "Be prepared for class so you don't have to think of something on the spur of the moment."

Being organized and allocating enough time to studying in preparation for every class is important too, of course. "Don't try to wing it; be very intentional about putting time in your calendar to prepare for each class," adds Zarate.

2. DON'T ignore registration and financial aid deadlines and procedures.

Every campus sends out both snail mail and e-mail to remind you of important deadlines. It's critical to keep an eye out for those communications and respond immediately, or as soon as you're able, according to Zarate.

And don't assume that you won't qualify for financial aid or other types of scholarships. "Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the California Dream Act Application (CADA) is important to understanding [your] financial picture," says Dr. Grommo.

3. DO build relationships with your professors.

"Seek out communication outside of the classroom with professors, by e-mail or during office hours," says Zarate. Even if your instructors appear to be busy, remember that all students have a right to access the people who teach them.

Zarate recommends talking to your teachers about a variety of questions, whether it's about the class you're taking with that instructor, concerns about your career, or asking for their recommendations for future courses. "Faculty are usually very open to having those discussions," she notes.

4. DO seek out a variety of mentors to guide you.

"Some mentors will listen and nurture you, while others will give you access to networks or valuable information," explains Zarate. "Don't expect one mentor to fulfill all your needs."

A good place to start? Befriend upperclassmen who can share their experiences balancing classes and student life.

You can also see an academic advisor, adds Grommo: "Establishing a relationship with an academic advisor will help the student stay on track with classes needed towards their degree and ensure they are heading towards graduation." Counselors in Student Affairs and at your campus' career center are there to help you as well.

5. DO seek out any help you need, whether academic or personal.

The most important thing any first-generation college student should know is that there are many resources on campus that are designed specifically to support your learning and you as a person.

According to Grommo, most CSU campuses have math and writing centers (two areas where many students struggle), and many have started student success centers that provide academic coaching and workshops.

Beyond academics, though, maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle is also important. "It's okay to seek out mental health support," agrees Zarate. Managing stress and participating in social events are just as important to your success as doing well in your classes.

Being the first in her family to get a college degree wasn't easy for Zarate, but it was something she says she absolutely had to do.

"There was no option. Getting a bachelor's degree was a matter of having dramatically different life and health outcomes," she emphasizes. "It is critical, so you need to do whatever you can to complete that degree."