Tips for First Generation College Students

First Generation College Students

In an increasingly competitive market, a university degree goes a long way to securing financial stability, career success, and overall life satisfaction. However, too many young Americans are denied the chance to attend college for the simple reason that they can’t afford it. Tuition costs continue to rise, an obstacle that was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which delivered a major blow to student bank accounts. That’s why, in this article, we’re sharing helpful insights, reflections, and tips for first generation college students.

When millions lost their jobs, more than half of university students could no longer cover tuition. First generation college students were hit even harder since campus closures and access to educational and financial resources impacted them more than others. During precarious times, students turn to scholarships to help offset the staggering cost of a higher education, and this is especially true for first generation college students.

We created the Premiere Education Last Dollar Scholarship with the unique needs of those students in mind. As a need-based, “gap-filling” scholarship, it offered up to $5,000 in aid per academic year to motivated young people who aspire to be the first in their families to attend college. It also came with a mentoring program that provided continued support throughout their journey. We spoke to two past scholarship recipients, Chasta Jared and Zahira Hernandez, and invited them to share their tips for first generation college students who have big goals and even bigger dreams.

What Is A First Generation College Student?

The formal first generation college student definition includes any student enrolled at a four-year institution whose parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree. This doesn’t imply, however, that the parents of such students don’t have at least some college experience.

For example, the Premiere Education Scholarship recipient Chasta Jared, currently enrolled in Lewis-Clark State College, told us, “My dad went to technical school. My mom studied business at college but was unable to complete her degree.” Chasta’s background shows that first generation college students have rich and diverse backgrounds, and no student’s journey looks exactly the same.

Top Tips from Premiere Education Last Dollar Scholarship Recipients

Sharing their tips for first generation college students, Chasta and Zahira explain how they worked exceptionally hard to overcome academic and financial challenges and enlisted the support of their families and communities.

Tip #1: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

The challenges facing many first generation college students begin in high school. Zahira Hernandez, who studies Pre-Health Sciences at the University of Washington, shares that she lacked mentorship regarding applying for college: “I had always wanted to go to UW [University of Washington], but their GPA requirement is 3.9. My parents didn’t go to college, so during the application process, I was doing a lot by myself. I never had anyone tell me ‘You need to do better’ or explain what the expectations are. Students who are first gen have a harder time navigating the application process.”

Zahira sought encouragement at her local high school: “When I was in high school, I attended workshops. I had an English teacher who helped me revise application essays. I think it comes down to self-motivation and having the will to get over obstacles.”

Commenting on the need for hard work and encouragement from others, Chasta observes, “I was president of the national honor society, captain of volleyball, basketball, track… My family was very supportive, they always encouraged me to do what’s best for me. Going into my freshman year of college, the outpouring of support from the community was endless.”

Tip #2: Seek Out Scholarships that Offer Ongoing Support

First generation university students merit all the encouragement they can get. However, financial support is not always easy to find, especially when research indicates that elite universities tend to prioritize funds for non-first-gen students. Furthermore, first generation students often face criticism from their friends and neighbors for challenging the boundaries of their communities and attempting to “rise above” their background by attending college. In other cases, parents worry that if their child enrolls in the university instead of helping to support their family by immediately finding a job, they won’t be able to make ends meet.

For these reasons, it can be easy for first generation students to feel guilty for pursuing a higher education, fail, give up, or otherwise jeopardize their academic goals. That’s why one of the top tips for first generation college students that Chasta and Zahira share is to pursue a scholarship that delivers ongoing mentorship and support.

The founder of Premiere Education, Amy Adkins-Dwivedi, understands well the hurdles faced by first generation college students because she, too, is the first in her family to earn a college degree. This profound understanding and personal connection is what made the Premiere Education Last Dollar Scholarship stand out from other scholarships for first generation college students. Chasta says, “It’s different from other scholarships because the team at Premiere Education is always reaching out to me, asking how I’m doing, answering questions. It’s so appreciated, it helps me have a better idea of where I’m going.”

Zahira also values the understanding, encouragement, and tips for first generation college students that Amy and the rest of the team extend: “Amy is a first-generation student, and we were able to have that connection. They’re always there to help provide support and mentorship when you need it.” Smiling, Chasta adds, “That’s what every scholarship should be like.”

Tip #3: Make Time for Exploration and Reflection

Scholarships for first generation college students help reduce the financial burden on families, look impressive on resumes, and help applicants develop and hone important skills, from writing to budgeting to time management. Being awarded a scholarship not only means more time for schoolwork, but also for reflecting on career goals while finding a path that resonates with a student’s aspirations, values, and talents. Studies show that 75% of students change their major during their studies at least once as they grow, learn, and discover who they are.

Zahira says, “The scholarship takes that weight off me. I can give my academics priority. It can also help my parents, and I feel a little less stressed financially.” For Zahira, the extra time has given her a chance to attend school programs and find meaning in a future career: “I used to want to open my own dental practice. But after participating in a 6-week summer health program, I realized that I would rather help communities in need.” Describing how the health program works closely with Hispanic patients who need help with translation, Zahira says, “I really like the idea of being able to give back to the community I identify with.”

The supplementary funds empowered Chasta to reevaluate her academic goals when she spent the summer working with travelers from all over the world in a small cruise ship town in Alaska: “I got to talk to a lot of people from Germany and other countries. It’s such a fun and meaningful experience to immerse yourself in a different culture and different outlook. I realized I want to pursue something I’m really passionate about.”

Dreaming Big is for Everyone

Both Chasta and Zahira agree that their experiences pursuing scholarships for first generation college students have helped them identify their strengths and develop their talents. The Premiere Education Last Dollar Scholarship, in particular, fueled their enthusiasm for academic success and continues to inspire them to share their tips for first generation college students.

Surprisingly, many students decline to pursue scholarships because they mistakenly assume that it would be too difficult to obtain an award. There are many organizations and foundations, however, that are delighted to help first generation students create a network of financial supporters to help achieve their dreams. For example, College Scholarships is an invaluable resource, regularly posting financial awards available to college aspirants who would be the first in their families to attend a university. “Find your community and resources,” Zahira advises. “College is not something you do by yourself.”

The Premiere Education Last Dollar Scholarship is no longer accepting applicants.

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