The insanity of finals on top of the stress of preparing for commencement can make a student feel like they’re a bundle of nerves, but the simultaneously rewarding and terrifying payoff of graduating is a sweet victory, especially for first-generation students.
From figuring out the university system without family guidance to juggling countless activities, all the steps they take to get to the moment of walking across the stage and getting their diploma involved the support of family, friends and colleagues.
“Some people are lucky. They’re born with parents who became a doctor or lawyer, or something like that. Some of us were not born with that baseline … For me, every step is new,” said Jason Miramontes, a criminal justice major at Cal State Fullerton.
Miramontes will be graduating this semester and knows the feeling of experiencing college for the first time without any prior guidance.
The formal definition of first-generation college students are “those whose parents’ highest level of education is a high school diploma or less,” according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. But the term can be broadened to students who are going to college in the United States and have parents who attended other universities overseas, according to Brown University.
The diversity of first-generation students varies in many ways. Brown University classified the differences to socio-economic classes, international, domestic, religions, races and ethnicities, and sexual orientations.
But one thing they all have in common is their unfamiliarity of the university system. While some college students have an idea of how to approach the new environment of either a two-year community college or a four-year university from their parents or peers, many first-generation students have to figure it out on their own.
“It’s kind of like walking around blind, but in a good way because you can push yourself and say, ‘Oh, I can do better,’ so that way I can set that precedent for my own future kids if I have some,” Miramontes said.
For Megan Maxey, a communications major with an emphasis in print journalism, the juggling act of balancing her life with her extracurriculars and studies is all too familiar. She is president of the Society of Professional Journalists at CSUF while also being a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority.
“I think at times, it definitely is a lot, but if you are dedicated and have a good work ethic, then it’s really going to benefit you in the end,” Maxey said.
If there’s one thing Maxey learned from dealing with the pressures of being a first-generation student, it’s to keep working even if there’s no one to help.
One program CSUF provides for first-generation students is Student Support Services, a federally-funded program that assists first-generation, low-income and disabled college students with earning their bachelor’s degree within six years. It’s goal is to help students increase college retention and graduation rates of those who choose to join the program.
A notable highlight from the National Center for Education Statistics report states first-generation students “were more likely than non-first-generation students to say that being very well off financially and providing their children with better opportunities than they had were very important to them personally.”
Brenda Garcia, a linguistics graduate student at CSUF, said her family plays an important role in her higher-education journey.
“It’s just very interesting to see how all of them helped me in different ways,” Garcia said. “My family has always been there for me and a big huge part of why I’m (in graduate school) is because of them.”