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Navigating College as a First-Generation Student of Color

Last updated October 25, 2023

While the start of college is an exciting adventure, it can come with some unique challenges for first-generation students of color– some that may even leave you wondering whether you belong in college. To help you better understand your worthiness of attending and thriving in college, we’ll provide some strategies for navigating challenges during your transition from high school to college as a first-generation student of color. 

A young woman in the library, studying with books and a laptop, smiling at the camera - Navigating College as a First-Generation Student of Color 

Who Are First-Generation Students? 

First-generation college students are students whose parents or guardians have never completed a four-year college degree. Even if your siblings have attended or graduated from college, you are still considered first-generation. 

Why is Being First-Generation Significant? 

Being the first, or one of the first, people in your family to seek a college degree is something to be incredibly proud of! As a first-generation college student, you are starting a unique journey and living out experiences unique to your family. That is very significant! 

Additionally, identifying as first-generation is significant because it can help you access crucial resources on and around campus that can support you throughout your college journey. Many colleges have resources specifically designed for students from underrepresented backgrounds to support them in their academic, career, and personal journeys. 

Acknowledging and Addressing Culture Shock and Self-Doubt 

For many first-generation students of color, transitioning to college represents a significant cultural shift. This experience can be overwhelming, since you're exposed to new people, ideas, and environments. This may include things like differences in language, customs, academic expectations, or social norms. It’s important to acknowledge these differences to help you better understand your own unique experiences and how they’ve shaped you. In the same way that you carry the customs, social norms, and expectations of your culture, other people do too! These differences aren’t bad, and there’s no one correct way of being or believing. Rather, they’re something to acknowledge and understand as you make your way through college (and life!).

It’s not uncommon for first-generation students to also carry a bit of self-doubt (also known as imposter phenomenon) regarding their abilities, intellect, or potential to thrive in new academic settings. However, it’s essential to remember that you deserve to be in college just as much as anyone else! If you find yourself experiencing imposter phenomenon, remember that your lived experiences and perspectives are invaluable and enrich your community. 

Where to Find Support in Your College Community

It’s important to seek support when you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed, especially when beginning college. Here are some great places to find resources and support in your college community: 

Cultural Centers and Affinity Groups

Seek out communities and organizations that celebrate diversity on and around campus, such as multicultural or diversity centers. These spaces can provide a sense of belonging and help you build new and supportive connections. They also offer resources and programming to help you celebrate your culture as well as the cultures of others!

Additionally, many colleges have student-led cultural organizations and affinity groups, such as Latinos Unidos or the Black Student Union. These groups can be a source of comfort and connection, helping you bridge the gap between your culture and your new college environment. 

Specialized Educational Programs

Many colleges offer specialized programs that support underrepresented ethnic minority, low-income, and first-generation college students in navigating their academics, careers, and personal matters. For example, the University of Washington offers their Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), while others may have TRIO programs on campus. 

These programs provide academic assistance, mentorship, and a sense of community. If you're unsure of how to get involved with these types of programs, contact your academic advisor or counselor– they can guide you on first steps to take. These programs are designed to help you succeed, so be sure to take advantage of them if they’re available!

Counseling Center 

Being a part of an underrepresented group in college can sometimes feel isolating, alienating, or anxiety-inducing. It's crucial to understand that these feelings are completely valid and shared by others in similar situations, so talking about your experiences with trusted friends or professionals who can provide guidance is important. 

College counseling services can be helpful to address emotional and psychological challenges. If you're struggling with the transition to college, be sure to reach out to your counseling center for support and to schedule an appointment. Activities such as journaling, meditation, and mindfulness practices can also be helpful tools for managing stress. 

Your Existing Support System 

When you feel overwhelmed, it can also be helpful to touch base with your existing network. Reach out to friends, family, or mentors for support, guidance, and affirmations. The people in your life care about you and want to see you succeed! 

Don’t Isolate Yourself

When college (and life) feels overwhelming, it’s easy to slip into a tendency to isolate yourself. While it’s important to take some time for yourself every so often, we encourage you to combat the urge to live in isolation. There are many people and resources in your college community that can uplift you and provide you with the support, care, and kindness you need to thrive. As you make your way through college, you can build a supportive network of friends and peers who understand your experiences, can support you through difficult moments, and will celebrate your successes with you! 

As a first-generation student of color, you bring a unique and valuable perspective to your college community. While challenges may arise, remember that you are never alone! Your journey through higher education is a testament to your resilience and determination. You belong here, and you can thrive! 

Have any questions about attending college as a first-generation student? Text #College to 33-55-77 to chat with one of our advisors. If you're using a mobile device, click here to have the text message set up for you!


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