College in itself is a stressful time in many people’s lives. For many, it’s the first time being away from home, having freedoms they never had before and handling larger workloads than ever. Most college students experience stress at some point in their college career. However, an overlooked population of students feels that stress in far more amplified terms: those who are the first in their family to go to college. West Chester University defines a first-generation college student as a student “with neither parent/guardian [having] completed a bachelor’s degree.” Being one of these students myself, I have experienced firsthand the added anxiety that comes with being the first in your family to attend college.
I know when I was an incoming freshman, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. What is a FAFSA? What is the difference between a bachelor’s and graduate degree? How much student debt is too much student debt? I had all these questions, and so many more, but I was too afraid to ask. In all honesty, I felt stupid. I felt like all my friends came from these families where people went to college and knew exactly what they were doing, and I didn’t. Knowing that I did not have the financial support of my parents, attending college out of state was never an option for me. I went to a local high school and remember getting teased for staying so close to home for college. The fact of the matter was, I knew I couldn’t afford it. Going to a school a plane ride away wasn’t worth being $120,000 in debt by the time I would be 22. It is hard to explain that to people who didn’t understand my financial situation.
According to PNPI, “First-generation students have a lower median household income and more unmet financial need compared to students whose parents attended college.” More often than not, first-generation students, myself included, come from families who are unable to financially support them through their higher education. In a poll of WCU first-generation students, I found that 60% of students I polled paid for most, if not all, of their education on their own. College debt is overwhelming for almost anyone – not to mention if you are the very first person in your family to ever have student debt in the first place.
I have been where you are, and it is okay to not have all the answers.
Fortunately, there are resources available for students like us. Last year, WCU received the “First Forward Designation” that recognizes higher education institutions that have demonstrated commitment to the success of their first-generation students. Part of the reason for the award was “West Chester’s First,” a program that provides information and events to help to further first-generation student success.
To any first generation students reading this: I have been where you are, and it is okay to not have all the answers. If you are a fellow first-generation student and feel adrift in the endless sea of anxiety that is the higher education process, just know you are not alone.
Madison Ogborn is a third-year communications studies major, minoring in journalism and Spanish. MO883968@wcupa.edu