I was introduced to the term first-generation college students as a graduate student. I did not realize until then that I was a first-generation college student. The more I read, the more I realized how much my experience aligned with the definitions researchers had outlined. There were a lot of things that I had to figure out on my own to finish my degree, such as what type of degrees I needed to get for my intended career, how much these degrees would cost, how to study and learn as a student, and how to build relationships with my professors. The time that I needed to devote to learning how to navigate college took me away from studying, extracurricular activities (e.g., study abroad, clubs), and career development and preparation (e.g., working with career services on my resume).

While navigating the academic coursework of college can be difficult for all students, first-generation college students have the additional requirements of learning and navigating the rules, norms, and system of college. This can include understanding the roles and duties of departments on campus, where to seek support, and how to successfully complete coursework. The time that it takes for first-generation college students to figure out the college system can be significant. This can shape academic work, persistence, and retention in college. It is important for college faculty, staff, and administrators to understand the challenges facing first-generation college students so that they can provide the appropriate resources and guidance.

First generation college students often have many questions about navigating college, but they may have few resources they can ask (Ives & Castillo-Montoya, 2020). First-generation college students may rely on their high school guidance counselors and teachers for some initial information about college (Irlbeck, Adams, Akers, Burris, & Jones, 2014), but what happens after high school graduation? Where can first-generation college students look for information? They may be unaware of whom to ask for support at the college level.

            In addition, family responsibilities may decrease the amount of time that first-generation college students can dedicate to their studies. This may include providing care for family members (e.g., babysitting) or working to support themselves financially through college (Covarrubias, Valle, Laiduc, & Azmitia, 2019). In addition, these responsibilities may prevent first-generation college students from engaging in activities required for program completion, such as internships. They may be unable to take time off from work or their family schedule to complete work for credit or to gain experience in their chosen field. Completion of internships or clinical experiences is important to make connections in their field of study, find opportunities for employment after graduation, and gain experience in their field. If first-generation college students are unable to complete these opportunities, they may face challenges in finding employment in their field after graduation or be unable to complete their programs of study.

            Another challenge that first-generation college students can face is a sense of belonging on a college campus. There may be cultural differences between family and school life that create conflict for students (Covarrubias, Valle, Laiduc, & Azmitia, 2019). Since first-generation college students are often faced with navigating and understanding college, they may spend less time developing relationships across campus. Without these relationships with faculty, staff, or administrators, first-generation college students may miss opportunities to ask questions of college professionals about navigating college successfully. They may also be fearful or ashamed to ask for resources or guidance due to the perception that they should know the answers about college. This is where first-generation college students may have feelings of imposter syndrome—the feeling of self-doubt or of being a fraud specifically in relation to intellectual or academic achievements (Clance & Imes, 1978; Salvatierra, 2022). They may ask questions such as: Do I belong here? When will someone figure out that I do not belong in college? Programs such as student clubs or organizations that focus on student belonging will support all students especially first-generation college students (O’Keefe, 2013).

Social capital support for first-generation college students can help minimize barriers and challenges to successful college completion. Social capital is the relationships and networks and the benefits that can potentially accrue by virtue of those relationships (Field, 2016). Because their parents did not attend college, first-generation students may be missing the social capital of college, such as understanding institutional resources (e.g., career center, advising, student center, information technology) or developing relationships with faculty and staff on campus, which can make navigating college and career difficult. This is particularly important for first-generation college students in obtaining information about college and their future career paths. Without a well-developed network and social capital, students may leave college before finishing their degrees (Beattie, 2018) or have difficulty working in their field after graduation. If first-generation college students are spending more time learning the college journey, they are spending less time building social capital, which would lead to social mobility. This delays their progress in college, their goals, and their entry into the workforce.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the supports that faculty, staff, and administrators can develop to help first-generation college students navigate college? 
  2. What are some of the offices on a college campus that first-generation college students need to know about, and why?
  3. Who should first-generation college students look to for advice on college?

Interested in related articles?

Check out the "First-Generation College Students: An Institutional Priority" article here.


Beattie, I. R. (2018). Sociological Perspectives on First-Generation College Students. In: Schneider, B. (ed). Handbook of the Sociology of Education in the 21st Century. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76694-2_8

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

Covarrubias, R., Valle, I., Laiduc, G., & Azmitia, M. (2019). “You never become fully independent”: Family roles and independence in first-generation college students. Journal of Adolescent Research, 34(4). Retrieved from: https://escholarship.org/content/qt0643f33v/qt0643f33v.pdf

Field, J. (2016). Social Capital. (3rd ed). Routledge.

Irlbeck, Adams, Akersm, Burris, & Jones. (2014). First-generation college students: Motivations and support systems. Journal of Agricultural Education, 55(2). Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1122313.pdf

Ives, J. & Castillo-Montoya. (2020). First-generation college students as academic learners: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 90(2). Retrieved from: file:///Users/lisawisniewski/Desktop/Ives-Castillo-Montoya-2020-FGCS.pdf
O’Keefe, P. (2013). A sense of belonging: Improving student retention. College Student Journal, 47(4), 605–613.

Salvatierra, A. G. (2022). Addressing imposter syndrome among first-generation college students. [Capstone project, California State University, Monterey Bay]. Digital Commons @ CSUMB. https://digitalcommons.csumb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2280&context=caps_thes_all#:~:text=Some%20first%2Dgeneration%20college%20students,and%20skills%20as%20a%20student