Firsthand stories of first-gen students

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Going to college is one of life’s most rewarding—and also demanding—experiences. For first-generation college students whose parents did not have the same opportunities, the financial, social, academic, and family issues can be amplified. The key to students’ adjustment and enjoyment is integrating academically and socially into campus life.

“It is true that your past experiences, including social inequalities, can impact your college success. But they do not have to define your destiny; the choices you make while in college can have a far greater impact on your success,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at San Francisco State University. Here, first-generation students and faculty advisors discuss what works.

How to intergrate academically and socially

“The key to staying in college for all students, regardless of your background or identity, is making sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself with your campus both academically and socially. Campus leaders have a responsibility to help you, but you have to also be responsible for yourself,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management at San Francisco State University. Here’s what Dr. Hong recommends:

  • Go to freshmen orientation
  • Show up for class, show up for class, show up for class!
  • Take advantage of your professor’s office hours to discuss questions or ideas; get to know your faculty
  • Live on campus if you can
  • If you have to work, get a job on campus rather than off campus
  • Join a student club or start one
  • Study abroad

Community resources can help fill in the gaps, but be careful not to let them substitute for becoming involved on campus. “Is there a church where you can practice your faith? Are there opportunities to volunteer? A community-based organization can be an excellent place to connect with other people. Engage a faculty member who may have a similar background or share some of your experiences,” says Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook, vice president for student success and engagement at Wheelock College, Massachusetts.

Clifton Rawlings

Clifton Rawlings

Second-year undergraduate | Computer engineering
California State University, San Bernardino

What was your main motivation for going to college?

I wanted to become a fighter pilot, so I looked into the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. A community college wouldn’t have this option, so I started applying to universities. I had to navigate the process by myself. I made a mistake in my application for financial aid and they gave me a really hard time. I got discouraged and almost didn’t apply, but my cousin helped me. My parents supported me, but after we realized the cost, I had to cut down on the number of applications and see how we could make it work financially.

How the admissions process proves your grit

“The process of applying for college, completing the necessary paperwork, and registering for classes can be complicated at best. When first-gen students show up for classes on the first day of the term, they have already demonstrated the grit it takes to be successful in college, even though they may not realize it at first.

“The characteristic that you may think is a barrier to their success in college—being the first one in your family—can actually work to your advantage if you view your ability to overcome obstacles as a strength that will help you in the future.”

—Amy Baldwin, MA, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas; author of The First-Generation College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2011)

So how are you paying for college now?

It’s definitely hard. I had to take federal loans to pay for most of it. My dad manages to save up every couple of months to help me out. I got a job on campus so we take turns making payments. I had to choose a college close to home so I wouldn’t have to live on campus.

How to approach the financial challenge

First-generation college students are more likely to get a paid job to cover college expenses, and their choice of college is more likely to be driven by financial factors, compared to their non-first-generation peers, according to research. Living at home can save money but may delay academic and social integration on campus.

“I suggest that first-gen students ask a lot of questions and not be afraid to seek out help. College and universities sometimes assume that students understand some of the hidden costs of going to college,” says Baldwin. She recommends three key steps:

  1. Work with a counselor or advisor to determine how tuition, fees, books, and other expenses will be paid for; this is key to keeping track of costs and what you will owe if you decide to take loans.
  2. Consider applying for financial aid, including grants, loans, and scholarships; there are scholarships just for first-gen students. You may have to piece together money from different sources.
  3. Stay on track to graduate on time, which can reduce the costs of college, by earning good grades and choosing classes carefully.

How does that affect your social life?

Most of the students live in dorms and they get the whole college experience, just like their parents did. My lifestyle is different because I don’t see my peers often after school hours. It helps if you join a club or group. You build friendships over time.

How does your job change your experience of college?

I got a position with Dell as an on-campus promoter. It’s allowed me to make more personal connections with professors and faculty, and I can make it work with my schedule. I’m not so sure about joining the Air Force now. I could use my experience and degree for a different career.

How to set achievable goals

Think about your competing commitments
“Move away from big resolutions. Instead, think about competing commitments: ‘My intention is to do X, and I have many other demands or desires, such as Y and Z.’ Identify the competing commitments that are getting in the way and think about how to resolve those conflicts. Courage doesn’t mean you take on every fight, all the time, everywhere. Focus on where you can make a difference this semester and go for the smaller wins.”
—Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management, San Francisco State University, California

Allow yourself to aim high
“Don’t limit yourself with where you want to go and what you want to become because of family, financial, or other issues. Yes, it may be important to consider those factors, but they can never stop you. There are ways of overcoming these obstacles.”
—Zhakaysha Garrett, First in the Family resident assistant/advisor, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

How has your relationship with your parents changed?

It’s improved a lot. My mother wanted to go to college, but she got pregnant in high school and didn’t have the chance. Now she loves it when I tell her all about college life. Those conversations have really built up our relationship, and my dad likes to listen to me, too.

Kelsey Noel

Kelsey Noel

Fourth-year undergraduate | English
Eastern Kentucky University

When did you first know you wanted to go to college?

My parents really pushed the idea since I can remember. They worked very hard doing long hours and they wanted me to have better opportunities. However, I had to do my own research, understand the admissions process, and figure out financial aid. They couldn’t offer advice or help financially.

So how are you paying for school?

As a low-income student, I qualified for the maximum Pell Grant. I also took federal loans. I refuse to take private loans, as they don’t have your best interest in mind. I work almost fulltime in the summer plus two jobs during the school year. That forces you to be organized. I like the responsibility and I see it as part of the transition into adulthood.

How do your life experiences affect your relationship with your peers?

I went to a Catholic university in my first year and didn’t mention my background. Eventually I transferred to EKU, which is more diverse. Still, most students come from professional families. They know more about school life and can benefit from their parents’ experience. It’s hard for them to relate to my situation, so I keep my issues to myself. A painful example of this is an argument I had with a good friend who came from a very privileged background, about how low income affects food choices. Our different perceptions created a huge divide between us and we eventually lost contact.

How to handle a social disconnect: “Imposter syndrome”

“The term ‘impostor syndrome’ is used to describe the feelings that first-gen students face when they step on campus: that you don’t belong and someone will figure it out if you’re not careful!

“The truth is that many students—first-gen and those who are not first-gen—feel this way when they start. It often takes time to develop relationships and to find groups that you feel most comfortable in. This is normal,” says Baldwin. Her three tips:

  1. Your college may have a first-gen group on campus that you can join.
  2. Look for activities and groups that interest you, and join in.
  3. If you feel as though you cannot get connected in a positive way, talk with a counselor or advisor or even a professor. They may be able to point you to resources on campus that can help you adjust.

How does your family relate to your life as a college student?

My parents are very proud of me, but there are challenges. I can’t really talk to them about grades, internships, or what I’m learning. They can’t understand how much effort it takes. I’ve had articles published, but it’s not something they can read and appreciate.

Family feats and frustrations

“First-gen students often feel they live in two worlds: their family or community, and college,” says Amy Baldwin, author of The First-Generation College Experience (2011).

Family encouragement
“Family plays an important role in a first-gen student’s success,” says Baldwin. In a 2005 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 47 percent of first-generation college students cited their parents’ encouragement as a very important reason for going to college—slightly higher than that among non-first-generation students (43 percent).

Pressure to be a role model
 “In some cases, the student feels a lot of pressure to succeed. It’s called the ‘golden child syndrome,’ and while it seems like a positive—who wouldn’t want so many people excited about you going to college?—it can cause stress.”

Fear of growing apart
“There may be some tension, and it is usually based on fear. Family members may fear that the student will not want to be around them any more or not be able to relate. Family members may be jealous of the student’s success and opportunities for a different life.”

Here’s what helps:

  1. “Look around your campus for special programs or newsletters for family members, which can help them become more aware of what you’re facing.”
  2. “Being honest, open, and communicative may not fix some of the issues, but will help.”
  3. Know that it’s OK to struggle. “Sometimes we are taught that failing is not an option because of our circumstances. However, it’s okay to fail, to not understand what you want to do just yet, to be afraid. Just remember to get up and try again.”
    —Zhakaysha Garrett, First in the Family resident assistant/advisor, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

What advice would you give other first-generation students?

The social aspect is essential, so get involved in activities. I joined a sorority, became a poetry editor and author, and was part of a public speaking group. Making it through college is one of the most rewarding things you can do in your life.

How awareness helps first-gen students thrive

Help students be aware of how their background matters
In a 2014 study, educating students about how their diverse backgrounds might influence their college experiences resulted in those students making better use of college resources (e.g., meeting with professors), getting higher GPAs, and reporting improved emotional health and engagement during the transition to college, according to Psychological Science.

At the First in the Family Community at Pacific Lutheran University, Washington, “Students explore their identity and how it applies to everyday life, which helps them see the good within it and learn how it can help them in the future,” says Zhakaysha Garrett, a First in the Family resident assistant/advisor. “This includes how family affects how we decide what we want do in college, how our financial situation may or may not affect how we interact with others (or our decision making), how we may or may not like asking for help because we want to do things on our own, and the pressure to not fail because we have real-life examples of what could happen to us if we don’t complete college.”

The First in the Family Community has a dedicated residence hall and organized community experiences designed to meet the needs of first-generation students. The program includes:
  • Connecting students with first-generation faculty; this enables students to network, find support, and “see that they can accomplish their dreams and goals.”
  • Connecting students with campus resources and emphasizing the importance of using them.
  • Exposing students to scenarios requiring conflict resolution and communication skills.

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Students’ stories: Surviving sexual assault and other trauma

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The process of surviving sexual assault, sexual abuse, and other traumatic experiences is unique to each individual and can be difficult to predict. “There’s no right way to heal after an assault,” says Carmen Hotvedt, assistant director for violence prevention at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

If you’re a survivor of trauma, those around you may have expectations about how you should react and how long your recovery should take. It’s important to develop strategies that fit with your own priorities, circumstances, and needs. “Sexual assault victims have so much power taken from them in their victimization, unfortunately, sometimes even in their paths to healing,” says Hotvedt. Here, students—women and men, gay and straight—describe what helps them in the aftermath of sexual assault and abuse.

Student survivors share what helps

“I called a helpline”
“[I was sexually assaulted by my former mentor] after I started identifying as gay at 19. After being called to court so many times, I felt like I was reliving the assault each time. One prosecutor even suggested that because I came out as gay, I was asking for it. Throughout the process and for some time after, I made calls to the Trevor Project, a helpline for teens and young adults in crisis. It helped having someone to talk to who wasn’t going to judge me, and learning that it wasn’t my fault.

“One night when I couldn’t get past my assault, the woman on the phone suggested I hike out in nature, so that I wouldn’t have to be around too many people and could get some exercise in. She explained that if I didn’t get out and do something, I would keep reliving the event, which was… keeping me powerless. She also said that making decisions about where to go and what to do would help me relearn that I had power over my own body, actions, and life. Through time and the Trevor Project, I saw my confidence come back. The man got a fine and house arrest and had to register as a sex offender. It took me about two years before I was finally past it.”
—Undergraduate, Ohio

Support from a crisis center or school

“I contacted a rape and sexual assault crisis center”

Student’s story
“I had an advocate available via phone any time I had to talk. She was the most understanding and caring lady in the world, and even came with me to court so I didn’t have to be alone. Women and men should know that they can speak up about sexual assault immediately and get in touch with sexual assault advocates. They might need help getting out of the situation and dealing with what already transpired. It needs to be talked about. Keeping it inside will eat you alive.”
—First-year undergraduate, Ridgewater College, Minnesota

What this is and how it works
Most cities have rape and sexual assault crisis centers that offer comprehensive services including counseling, STI testing, and legal advocacy and guidance. According to a 2006 study in Violence Against Women, survivors who worked with a victim advocate were more likely to have police reports taken and less likely to say they felt further victimized by the police. They received more medical services and reported less stress as a result of the legal and medical processes.

“I was supported by my college”

Student’s story
“I was at a party with friends and we got separated. This guy pinned me against a wall. He said he was going to have sex with me and didn’t care what I wanted. I had never been so scared. One of my friends forcefully removed the guy and took me home. A friend reported it to my Resident Advisor, who reported it to the school. The school reached out to me and offered help, and places I could go to on campus, such as the women’s center. Every university or community should have places and support groups for people who have experienced sexual assault.” —Graduate student, University of Massachusetts Amherst

How schools can help
Survivors can be helped by a timely and adequate response from their school administration. This might include course-load reduction, counseling, investigating a sexual assault, and moving the alleged perpetrator into different classes or accommodations.

“Some students find that school becomes more difficult after sexual assault, and make reductions to their course load, resetting their expectations for themselves,” says Carmen Hotvedt, assistant director for violence prevention at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “For others, their academics give them something to focus on.”
Supportive friends or religion

“I confided in supportive friends”

Student’s story
“I’m very close to my older brother, and he was on call for me 24/7. That’s one major way that people can provide support: being available, even if only over the phone. A lot of the fallout from abuse is when you’re lying awake in the night and you don’t want to be a pain and call someone. So he was very helpful, just having someone say, ‘I believe you, tell me what’s happening, what do you need right now?’ People can be supportive in different ways, and survivors need all of that support.”
—Former undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Amherst

How it helps
It’s important to spend time with friends and others who validate your feelings, don’t judge you, and make you aware of your strengths. Supportive reactions from family, friends, and counselors help survivors recover, according to a 2006 study of 500-plus female college students in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Negative reactions from friends and family are related to higher levels of post-traumatic stress.

“I drew on religious and spiritual support”

Student’s story
“I was raised a Christian, and I had a great pastor. The things he taught me about forgiveness and the power of prayer were a tremendous blessing, something I was able to fall back on when I experienced the trauma of rape. I realized if you don’t forgive, it’s like that knife of pain they put into you. You’re just digging it around in your belly, saying, ‘This is what happened to me; look how they hurt me! Look how sharp this knife is!’ Forgiveness is the act of pulling that knife out and dropping it. It hurts, but it’s not because they deserve to be forgiven. It’s because you deserve to walk free of it. Go to God in prayer. By praying for good things for that person, you create new emotions within your own heart that will heal the pain they left you in. It doesn’t make it right, what they did to you. Nothing makes it right. But forgiveness is the only way to take that knife out.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

How religion can help
Among survivors, positive religious coping—drawing on religion as a source of strength, meaning, and healing, rather than blame or punishment—is linked to greater emotional well-being, including lower levels of depression, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
Empowered by advocacy

“I got involved in sexual assault prevention advocacy”

Former student’s story
“Speaking about one’s own experience, whether privately to friends, family, and counselors, or publicly to groups at Take Back the Night marches, when the survivor feels ready, can be very therapeutic. Going public about my assault has made a huge difference. It’s been cathartic, turning a negative thing into action. You weren’t able to stop what happened to you, but you can help others. I’ve been down this road and can help explain it.”
—Dr. Laura Gray-Rosendale, author of College Girl: A Memoir (Excelsior Editions/SUNY, 2013), survivor of sexual assault, and professor of English at Northern Arizona University

Student advocacy organizations: Who they are and what they do
Many organizations that work to end sexual violence are staffed by sexual assault survivors. Student-oriented organizations such as Know Your IX, End Rape on Campus, and It’s On Us work to empower survivors and educate the public on the nature and impact of sexual assault.

They offer survivors:
  • Support and understanding
  • The opportunity to help others
  • Education on, and insight into, sexual assault
  • The opportunity to develop advocacy and related skills (e.g., in leadership, communication, and community or media outreach)
What about male and LGBTQ survivors?

Male survivors

  • One in 33 men experiences an attempted or completed rape in his lifetime, and 1 in 6 has been raped or sexually abused by age 18, according to the Department of Justice (2000).
  • Male survivors are likely to encounter the societal myths that men should be able to protect themselves and that male sexual arousal indicates willingness. These misconceptions can increase feelings of isolation and shame and may cause some to question their sexuality. This can contribute to self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse and social withdrawal.

LGBTQ survivors

  • 44 percent of lesbian women and 26 percent of gay men experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Almost two out of three transgender respondents say they have been sexually assaulted, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011).
  • Gay and transgender survivors may feel that the assault occurred because of their sexual and/or gender identity (this is sometimes true). Concerns about being shamed, blamed, and discriminated against by police, medical workers, and/or the community are barriers to reporting sexual assault.
Signs that you may need additional support
For a variety of reasons, some survivors of sexual assault may turn to coping strategies that prove less helpful in the long run. “Some students develop strategies for survival that may appear to be counter-intuitive to the healing process, such as hyper-sexuality, self-medicating, self-harm, safety hyper-vigilance, and/or isolation,” says Carmen Hotvedt, assistant director for violence prevention at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “These are common reactions to trauma. Although it may be frustrating for peers, family members, or student affairs staff to understand, these behaviors may be part of someone’s healing path until they move on to other choices.”

Potentially unhealthy coping strategies can include:
  • Avoidance and denial
  • Social isolation
  • Risky behaviors, e.g., substance misuse and unsafe sex

Avoidance and social withdrawal

Avoidance coping involves distancing yourself from trauma as a way to avoid feeling overwhelmed. After a sexual assault, some decide to stay silent for reasons related to fear and perceived safety, blame and shame, or a desire to move on quickly. Sometimes, denial can help survivors maintain other aspects of their lives. However, avoidance may bring increased stress later.

“Pretending that it hasn’t happened or ignoring it can be one of the worst things a survivor can do,” says Dr. Gray-Rosendale, author of College Girl: A Memoir. “This could not only result in the perpetrator going free, but also time and attention is needed to process and heal from what has happened.”

Some survivors withdraw socially. This is understandable, but may deny them the support of friends, family, and others who can potentially help.

Student’s story
“I felt responsible, so I didn’t want to share. I thought everyone would judge me and I would be alone, so I kind of made myself alone for a bit.” (College withheld)

Risky sexual activity and substance use

Risky behaviors include:
  • Earlier initiation of sexual activity
  • A greater number of sexual partners
  • Not using a condom
  • Unwanted pregnancies
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
Survivors may feel the need to use substances or other physical sensations, such as sexual activity, to distance themselves from the memory of the assault or regain a sense of empowerment and control, according to the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault.

“I talk with a counselor”
“I wasn’t doing well. My roommate, who is a social work major, pushed me to go to the campus counseling service, to make sure I was making decisions that were best for me. They talked me through what happened and my next steps. The same psychologist was by my side the whole time, making sure I was OK. They had me get a physical and do STI tests, but their main goal was to get me talking and for me to regain my body-to-mind connection, which tends to get distorted when you get traumatized.

“The most comforting thing about them was that they didn’t pressure me to talk or do anything that didn’t feel comfortable. The most important advice they gave me was to realize what happened and to work on getting better. Cliché, I know. But when something like sexual assault happens, you can’t just block it out. By ignoring it, you prolong the healing process. I still check in with them once a week to tell them how I’m progressing and the successes and struggles of the week.”
—Undergraduate, Temple University, Pennsylvania

“I got justice through the legal system”
“The other guys on the team labeled me gay, homo, fag…Each guy held me down and took his turn forcing me to do things I did not want to do. What’s important is seeking closure within yourself. The only reason I can wake from the nightmare is because I took it upon myself to [file charges against] every single one of them. I made sure that they either spent time in jail or were charged a huge chunk of money. Although someone might not understand what you’re going through, you need to tell someone. You need to report what happened, who, when, where, everything, to the best of your abilities.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton

“I work on self-care and creativity”
“When bad things happen to me, I tend to hold back or hide my emotions. Sometimes, having an outlet can let you express the feelings you don’t necessarily want to feel. Theater and singing require you to portray emotion and live in the moment. They let me express my feelings without exposing myself too much, and this helped me recuperate. Whether your outlet is exercise, theater, or crafts, it lets your mind give out steam, even if you aren’t ready to face those emotions.”
—Undergraduate, Temple University, Pennsylvania 

Deciding whether to report and a survivor's story
Deciding whether or not to report

Seeking justice through the legal system does not erase an assault or its effects, yet for some survivors the process is important to their recovery. Reporting an attack may help protect others. Reporting an assault can have downsides. A victim advocate at a sexual assault crisis center or helpline can talk you through the pros and cons. Before disclosing an assault to any professional, on- or off-campus, ask them about confidentiality.

Survivor's Story
Former student’s story
“My parents helped me talk to an attorney, and I filed a civil lawsuit. I have not received any financial settlement, but what mattered was that my voice was heard. I felt enormously empowered, like I had reclaimed my inner strength. I no longer felt like an empty shell with my insides scooped out. It helped me to stop seeing myself as a victim. It also helped me publicize a terrible wrong that had been committed against me. By visibly pointing at my perpetrator and the people who protected him, I forced them out of the shadows and into the glare of the legal system and public opinion. I don’t think I could have recovered without taking action. Had I listened to my fear, I would always see myself as someone who was trampled on and could not get back up because she was too broken.”
—Former undergraduate, University of California in Irvine
How counselors can help
Counselors are trained to listen without expressing judgment. Many have helped others through similar situations. Additionally, counselors can help you to:
  • Sort through your emotions in a supportive environment
  • Make decisions about reporting, legal options, and recovery
  • Develop healthy coping strategies
  • Minimize self-blame, guilt, and depression
  • Continue your college education
Self-care strategies
“The most helpful thing I can say to someone who has experienced something traumatic is that their only job is to take care of themselves, do what they need to survive, and know that they are a valuable and loved person,” says Carmen Hotvedt, assistant director for violence prevention at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Self-care and creativity can involve:
  • Healthful eating
  • A sleep schedule that’s as normal and regular as possible
  • Avoiding stimulants and depressants, e.g., caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and other drugs
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Avoiding stressors to the extent possible
  • Relaxing activities, e.g., reading, journaling, breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and music
  • Creative activities, e.g., music, writing, dance, and art
  • Physical activity, which can reduce stress and help you feel more in control of your body
The Art of Change

Get help or find out more

Find help on or near your campus
Not Alone

National Sexual Assault Hotline
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
800-656-HOPE (4673)

Live online 24/7 support
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)

Crisis intervention 24/7 for LGBTQ youth
The Trevor Project
Helpline: 1-866-488-7386
TrevorText: 202-304-1200 (free)

Survivors’ rights and legal information
End Rape on Campus

Survivors’ online community
After Silence

Support for survivors of military sexual assault
Department of Defense
Helpline: 877-995-5247

Support around teen dating abuse
Love Is Respect
Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
Text: “loveis” to 22522

Guide for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse
Colorado State University