By Mia Eng

Are you a first-generation college student? Perhaps you’re a professor, a family member, or friend of someone who is one. Or maybe you’re someone who simply wants to understand more about the challenges they experience. I hope to bring more awareness to the concerns and struggles that many first-gen college students, including myself, face and also to offer support and encouragement to others who are like us. It is truly comforting to know the various support systems that are in place to assist all of us and to recognize that our experiences are valid.

What Does It mean to Be A First-Generation College Student?

First-generation college students are college students whose parents have not completed a four-year degree. Compared to their non-first-gen (legacy) peers, they are more at risk of having lower GPAs, receiving less support, and dropping out of college. While most first-generation students attend college to further their education for a better future, this comes along with many other challenges along the way/

The first obstacle many face is finances. Across the country, around 50% of first-gens come from low-income families. A low income can place a heavy burden on students and their families, with the average cost of college in the U.S. amounting to over $35,000 a year. These high university costs may push students to take on an extra job—or even two—to cover what financial aid does not, which takes away from ample studying time. This may also lead to self-guilt in the student for pushing financial responsibilities onto their families, or guilt resulting from their families’ higher expectations to succeed. 

The feeling of guilt is one of the most common negative emotions that first-generation students experience. A large factor in this involves the quest to bring honor to one’s family, which can set even higher expectations for a student. Since many families consider these first-generation students to be someone who can break them out of a history of poverty or “less-prestigious” occupations, students may find themselves under a lot of pressure while suffering breakaway guilt. This type of guilt encompasses the obligation to be the savior of their household and the feelings of selfishness that accompany leaving their family behind. Whether for house chores, caring for older and younger family members, or tending to family conflicts, many believe that they should feel shame for not being able to physically help within their home, or for attending a college far away. These complex emotions can also contribute to imposter syndrome, where one views themselves as a fraud, not as competent as others, and someone who does not deserve their accomplishments.

Concerns on Their Mental Wellbeing

Nationwide, 10% of American adults suffer from depression and 5.7% experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). These numbers drastically increase when we include college as a factor, as 39% of college students overall—legacy or not—have a significant mental health issue, and 68% of those between ages 18 and 24 avoid treatment for depression and anxiety. Further, a research study published in August 2022 highlighted that 40.3% of first-generation students in the study reported clinically significant symptoms of major depressive disorder, while 44.6% displayed clinically significant symptoms of GAD. The startling statistics exhibit how much the buildup of stressors related to race, gender, and socioeconomic status in tandem with one’s academic status can contribute to lower graduation rates, decreased retention, and, of course, the development of several mental disorders. 

What can be done about this?

It’s not surprising that first-generation students are more at risk of mental health struggles; it can be scary to cope with the feeling of being alone on your academic journey! Many barriers exist for these students when accessing adequate mental health support, including a lack of financial resources, stigma that surrounds the world of mental health, a deficit in ethnic or cultural representation in mental healthcare providers, and an extreme pressure to prioritize academic success over all else. However, many resources exist to aid students in the process of achieving their educational goals.

Over the last few years, support for mental health on college campuses has grown nationwide. Many universities now feature on-campus counseling centers with licensed therapists, who can offer in-person or teletherapy, peer support group, workshops, recommendations for treatment, or referrals to off-campus support. If you feel that your education has placed any sort of stress on your mental health, don’t be afraid to give your school’s student center a visit! The staff are there to help you, and want the best for both your academic success and quality of life.

If you or someone you know that might be in a suicidal or emotional crisis that requires immediate intervention, do not hesitate to call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.

Another option that can cut down costs involves researching for low-cost clinics in your area. Non-profit mental health clinics, such as the Norooz Clinic Foundation, strive to provide affordable mental health services in order to remove barriers of access to healthcare. Here at Norooz, we provide a variety of services—from individual, couples and family therapy to EMDR and VR therapy, with flexible schedules for in-person and virtual appointment —while actively destigmatizing mental health in our community through outreaching. You can visit our website to learn more about mental health, our services, and our mission!

My Experience as a First-Generation College Student

Though at times it can feel so overwhelming to learn effective ways to study, stress about what I need to do to get into graduate school, or build up the courage to ask for help from my professors, I remind myself how proud I am to be where I’m at right now. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can achieve something that those before me could not, and I am in college proving to myself, my family, and everyone who can see me, that no matter the obstacles, I am here, overcoming them. 

Now, I cannot say that I am alone in this journey. I am so grateful to have the endless support from my family who couldn’t be prouder to send me off to college. And I keep that thought close to my heart. With each day I show up to class, I represent not only myself and my goals, but my family. My classmates may not be able to see them now, but I know when I walk down the stage at graduation, my parents will be my top supporters in the audience. So here’s to you, Mom and Dad. I’m over 300 miles away from you right now, but I am so thankful that you have enabled me to chase my dreams. Each assignment I complete, each exam I study for, and every step I take, is all for you. I know that with each passing grade I receive, I’m one step closer to rewriting history for our family.

And with that, I hope all of you first-generation college students out there can relate. Each day we show up to school, we show up for both ourselves and our families. I am proud of each and every one of you, because this is one of the hardest things we will do in our lives. Don’t give up, keep chasing that degree, and live up to your dreams. You can do it!

Mental Health Support Available!

In order to achieve your dream and perform your best in school, you need to be physically and mentally healthy. Don’t forget to take care of yourself and seek help when needed. If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, talking to a therapist can be tremendously helpful, call us today at 714-386-9171 or email to info@noroozclinic.com for schedule an appointment with therapist. Our clinicians speak English, Farsi, Spanish and Tagalog. Free peer support group is every Wednesday at 12pm PST.

References

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Becerra, M. (2018, June 28). Mental health and academic performance of first-generation college students and continuing-generation college students. eScholarship, University of California. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4691k02z

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