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First Generation College Students

People throwing graduation caps in the air 

Drexel University defines first-generation college students as those whose parents or guardians do not have a four-year college degree. We know that this definition does not fully describe the rich diversity of first-generation college students. Drexel students might have a parent that received their degree later in life as a non-traditional student, while others have parents who may have attended some college, but did not complete their education. Still others may have a parent who received a degree from a University outside of the United States. An estimated 30% of Drexel University’s full-time undergraduate students, plus faculty and staff (including some Counseling Center staff members), identify as first-generation college students. First-generation college status is an invisible identity, and often times first-generation students share other intersecting identities, including being a student of color, from a working-class or lower-income households or a child of immigrant parents.

First-generation students have unique insights, strengths and experiences that they bring to campus. They are trailblazers, tenacious, highly motivated and talented. First-generation students may also confront certain challenges that are unique to being the first in the family to pursue a four-year degree. One of the biggest struggles facing first-generation students is the lack of family knowledge around navigating higher education. One study (Stebleton, Soria and Huesman, 2014) shows that first-generation students may experience some of the following:

  • Feeling less of a sense of belonging on campus as compared to non-first-generation peers
  • First-generation students might report needing mental health services, but also have higher rates of not using counseling, compared to non-first-generation students
  • Greater rates of depression and dress compared to non-first-generation students

Some other experiences that may be shared by first-generation college students are:

  • Feeling socially isolated due to elitism of many higher education institutes
  • Families may not understand the demands of college work
  • Added pressures and responsibilities from self and/or family to succeed
  • Imposter syndrome, or feeling self-doubt around skills, talents, accomplishments and internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”
  • Pride about being the first in their family to attend and complete college. This is an important accomplishment!
  • Confusion around navigating college processes, such as knowing which departments to access for support, or confusion around navigating graduate school applications or job searches

Recommendations for First-Generation College Students

  • Get Support. Take advantage of faculty office hours and keep in contact with your adviser. Seek out mentorship opportunities. Drexel University has resources like the Center for Learning and Academic Success or the Office of Inclusion and Diversity that could help you feel supported.
  • Connect. Get involved with campus activities and see if there is a student organization that catches your interest. Check out the link below in On Campus resources to see more about upcoming events and student organizations.
  • Ask Questions. There are no stupid questions – if you don’t know, ASK.
  • Maintain a balance. It is important to find a way to manage the demands of academic responsibilities, family, friends and work. Talk to someone. It could be helpful to talk about what you are experiencing and let others know what you may need from them. As you grow, you might notice that you start to feel different from your family or friends. This is natural and it may be helpful to share your experiences. If you notice you are struggling and talking to a friend or family isn’t enough or you don’t feel comfortable, consider scheduling an appointment with a counselor.

Campus Resources

Online Resources

Family Resources

Find helpful suggestions for families of first-generation college students

The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment, nor should it replace the consultation of a trained medical or mental health professional. Please note that outside links are not under our control, and we cannot guarantee the content contained on them.