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First Generation College Students: 9 Tips for Success

By Linsey Knerl
December 5, 2018

Undergraduate students who come from a family where no parent attended college are often labeled as “first-generation” college students. While the definition of this term varies slightly among experts, the facts about this demographic remain; they generally enroll in post-secondary programs at a much lower rate than peers who have parents with at least some college experience, if not completed degrees.

The numbers are stark enough to raise the question, “How can these first-generation students overcome the barriers preventing them from going to college?” We asked Miss Renea Smith, senior manager of enrollment operations at Northeastern University, to help answer.


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Renea’s Story

Renea Smith is in charge of handling applications and decision communications for graduate and bachelor’s completion programs at Northeastern University, where her team processes around 8,000 applications each year. As a first-generation college student herself, she knows that—for many of these students—it can feel like a leap to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program, especially while juggling additional responsibilities. Her team often hears similar hesitation among prospective students, especially from applicants who didn’t grow up with college graduates in the home.

“Applicants are very nervous if they are the only one from their family who has gone to school,” she shares. These same jitters are also common among students who may have tried school in the past and are coming back after a long break. Because Smith knows first-hand what it feels like to take the first steps, she offers early encouragement: “You can do it at your own pace. You can accomplish it.”

It’s not just lip service for Smith. While she stresses that a degree is doable—even with extra responsibilities at home—her team works together (like a family, she says) to anticipate the anxieties that first-generation and non-traditional students may have. Many of these concerns subside when Smith’s team explains the flexibility of a degree from Northeastern, including the night, evening, and 100 percent online classes that are offered.

For Smith, it was a personal goal to obtain a college degree. She enrolled in 2009—while still working full-time—taking classes, one at a time, until she graduated. Once she started, she slowly built upon her experiences to get more and more confidence—and credits—before finishing her degree. Smith doesn’t hide the fact that it was a challenging time in her life, but it was also incredibly rewarding. She shares the following tips for anyone considering taking the first step.

Tips for First-Generation College Students

1. Find Your Team

Smith found it important to connect with other students in her peer group, and she started working right away to find like-minded students who shared the same goal of earning a degree. The close-knit group she formed made her feel comfortable even though she was taking online classes where she only met with other students virtually. Smith felt encouraged as they shared how managed to balance family obligations, work, and education. She stresses that these connections inspired her to continue with her own journey, and meeting with some of her classmates offline also helped her put a face to the names she was encountering in her online groups.

2. Reach Out for Help

Set yourself up for success by connecting with the right people—from professors to counselors to your local career center. Develop strong social ties with those around you, and don’t be afraid to lean on these connections for help.

Remember to stay involved with your social network and talk to people you trust. Take advantage of any tutoring programs and counseling centers your university may offer. These services can help you navigate the college experience and feel understood.

3. Find the Right Format to Fit Your Lifestyle

Whether it’s taking classes online, in-person, or in a hybrid format that combines the two, find the right fit for your lifestyle. Many first-generation students hold jobs or have other commitments outside of class, so it’s crucial to find the best arrangement for you. This will minimize stress and help keep your life balanced.

4. Keep Perspective

Being able to visualize the finish line—and all that your degree will offer—is a key strategy to maintaining your focus. This may mean you need to remind yourself regularly that your time in college is just a small (albeit important) season of life that will pass quickly. Smith emphasizes that your perception of time truly matters. While it may seem that time is an obstacle to getting everything done—especially for students balancing a career and kids and school—time is also the key to making it happen.

“A year goes by so fast. We always think that it’s going to take forever. Once you start something, time just goes by so quickly. A year goes by in a flash. I tell anyone that you can do it. Don’t look at how long it’s going to take because before you know it, you’re going to be walking across the stage [at graduation].”

Seeing time as a motivator instead of a stumbling block can be helpful for first-generation students who may be intimidated by the time requirements of college programs.

5. Take Part in Activities You Enjoy

Become involved with your college community to feel connected with other students, whether through clubs, activities, or hobbies you enjoy. By taking part in campus activities, you better immerse yourself in the college experience and actively make important connections with students—making friends and broadening your network.  If you’re an online student, check out the school’s social media pages, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as discussion boards to stay connected.

6. Know Your Limits

Don’t overload your schedule by cramming in too many courses and activities at once. Focus on a few things outside of class—like work or extracurricular activities—and avoid overloading on classes. It’s important to pace yourself so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Time management is important, and having a set schedule can help you balance your different needs and interests, whether it’s academic, social, work, or family.

7. Communicate with Those You Love

During at least one term, Smith was enrolled in four classes while employed full-time, which seemed a lot to balance. With young children at home as well, Smith found it important to communicate the new “normal” and what the kids should expect. Not wanting to hide the significance of her commitment, she shared her goals and struggles honestly with her family.

“Just know that Mommy wants this. I want to do it,” she reminded them when she was facing some of the bigger challenges. Smith never stopped encouraging open communication with her family, reminding them that they could always talk to her about any concerns with the new, busier schedule. They would work it out together.

8. Develop a Financial Plan Early  

From scholarships to grants and loans, don’t wait to seek the financial help you want. Create a financial plan and consider the costs you could accrue in addition to tuition, such as fees, books, room and board, and transportation. Also, consider keeping track of any student loan debt you accrue while in school. Don’t hesitate to speak to advisors and counselors; they can help you navigate the financial aid process during your time in college.

9. Build a Legacy

The beautiful thing about first-generation students, Smith says, is that once they graduate, they break the cycle for their own children who may someday consider a bachelor’s or even a more advanced degree. Smith didn’t hide from her kids the difficulties that balancing a job, family, and college presented, but she doesn’t believe it deterred them either. “My kids got to see me sometimes frustrated, but it put something in them.”

That “something” seems to be an internal drive for success, and it seems to be effective. Smith’s daughter, who works a full-time job while attending college, is scheduled to graduate from Northeastern in 2019 and has demonstrated the difference it makes to have a parent pave the road as a first-time graduate. Smith’s son, who is still in high school, is determined to set ambitious goals for his future, an attribute Smith sees as beneficial for whatever choices he makes after high school.

Smith approached her degree as she did all things that required more of her. “I still press forward. I wanted to show myself, and I wanted to show them, that you can do anything if you want—just put your mind to it.”

She kicked off a trend for her kids (and possibly their kids) to think of college as the new normal. It’s possible, it’s achievable, and—as Smith and her daughter have already demonstrated—Northeastern is there when you’re ready to make it happen.

“There’s No Better Time to Get Started.”

While every student’s journey is different, many of the fears that hold first-generation students back are similar. Anxieties and doubt can creep in, causing future graduates to put off applying until a time that they feel they are more equipped to enroll.

Smith doesn’t want anyone to put off for tomorrow what could be done today, however. “If I could pass along anything, just get started. Don’t put time as the perimeter to your dreams.”


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About Linsey Knerl
Linsey Knerl is a content contributor for Northeastern’s Lifelong Learning Network.