Career Advice

What I Wish I Knew as a First-Generation College Grad

posted on May 31, 2019 | by Ariana Pena

What I Wish I Knew as a First-Generation College Grad

For as long as I can remember, my parents had always told my sisters and me about the
importance of a college education. Having both dropped out of high school to raise my oldest
sister, they were adamant we receive the education they never could.

In my experience, advice about navigating the first-generation college experience was relatively easy to come by. It wasn’t hard to find resources on how to pick classes, how to deal with financial aid or how to adopt an “I-belong-here-too” mentally. But now that I’ve been out of college for two years, I really wish someone would have prepared me for the challenges and
complexities of being a first-generation student AFTER college.

If you are one of the first in your family to cross the stage this graduation season, keep on
reading for the top three things I wish I had known as a first-generation college graduate.

Do not rush into a full-time job or grad school because it seems like the right thing to do

As one of the first in your family to graduate, there are a lot of eyes on what you’ll do next. Will you get another degree? Will you begin a full-time job with benefits? If you don’t, was the
education you received a waste of money? The pressure to figure out your next steps right
away can be unbelievably debilitating.

For me, because I grew up believing that the payoff for receiving a college education was in
landing a higher-paying job, I nearly jumped at the first full-time salaried offer I received without a second thought. After working at that company for a short time, I quickly realized that the job I stepped into was not at all what I wanted. I was left feeling even more confused than when I first graduated.

Instead of working a full-time job right after graduation, I wish I would have considered the value of different opportunities, like taking a gap year, finding an internship, or enrolling in a service-based program like Teach For America or Americorps. While these may seem like
untraditional post-grad routes to your family, they can actually be a great way for you to further explore areas of interest and gain transferable skills without the commitment of a full-time job.

Plus, rushing into a job or a graduate program without considering other options can end up making you more confused and uncertain as to what to do next if it does not work out. So you actually may be better off working that retail or coffee shop job until you find something you are really excited about!

It’s OK if you don’t completely understand student loans

While first-generation college students may not be the only students who have difficulty in learning how to handle their student loans, I personally found the entire process to be extremely challenging (and a little embarrassing) because I couldn’t rely on my parents or other family members for advice.

Taking charge of my own loans and financial aid package meant I had to learn how to fill out forms like the FAFSA on my own and had to familiarize myself with student loan jargon (like the meaning of subsidized and unsubsidized) – all of which were things that the many parents of non-first-gen students handled (at least at my school).

When I graduated, I felt even more overwhelmed at the thought of having to pay back my student loans. I had no idea where to start or who to go to for help. If you’re dealing with the same anxieties that I had surrounding student loans – don’t panic! Remember, this is uncharted territory for you. It’s okay not to know exactly what to do and to question whether or not you’re doing it right. Don’t be afraid to seek guidance from outside resources.

Whether it be searching for articles on the internet (stay tuned for another article on the breakdown of student loans from me in June) or contacting your college’s financial aid office when you have questions, it’s so important to take advantage of the help you do have outside of your immediate family. And remember, everyone struggles with finances after college, student loan related or not, so you are not alone!

Being a first-gen graduate teaches you more than you think it does

Being among the first in your family to graduate from college is a HUGE accomplishment and
one you should feel so proud of. While I am able to understand that now, I didn’t always feel
proud of my first-generation status. In fact, I spent a lot of time in college trying to hide this fact about me.

It wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized how many skills I actually gained by navigating college without a road-map. Through those experiences, I learned how to take initiative for my own education and how to have courage when imposter syndrome crept in. I learned how to ask for help when I desperately needed guidance and persevered when I felt hopeless.

But most importantly, I learned that no matter how unfamiliar the environment may be, I am so much more capable of excelling than I give myself credit for. I am slowly realizing that the qualities I gained through my experience as a first-generation college student have been extremely valuable in the workplace and are now some of my greatest strengths. So whatever you decide to take on next, remember to do so with the utmost pride, confidence and patience.

Congratulations first-gen grad, you did it!