Trials of a First Generation College Student

Sumur Neace
Guest Writer

I’m a first generation college attendant and I have no idea what I’m doing. My hobbies include: accumulating debt, becoming irrationally angry over the price of textbooks, not really understanding how FASFA works and frequently feeling overwhelmed. How did I get here you ask? Buckle up buttercup, because I’m about to take you on a wild ride.

My family of five are all hardworking, dedicated individuals. Mom and Dad met when they were fifteen and from that moment, there was no question of “who will I spend the rest of my life with”, they both just knew. They were married at seventeen and eighteen and in the same year, they were, I’d like to say pleasantly, surprised to begin expanding their family. First came my older brother and, shortly afterwards, I arrived. With both of my parents under twenty and now responsible for two additional mouths to feed, college was not the most viable option…actually, it wasn’t an option at all. For a while they worked the jobs that they could to put food on the table. Eventually, my father was able to attended a local community college where he got his associate degree in auto mechanics, which he’s continued as a career for the last 20 years. My mother worked a number of different jobs until she was able to attend the same community college, where she started working on obtaining her associates degree in Sign Language Interpreting. However, due to a great job offer, she didn’t finish.        

Growing up, the importance of college wasn’t harped upon. My parents chose to focus on the present, paying attention to how we were doing in school, what we were interested in academically and encouraging our involvement in after school activities. They felt that going to college was our own choice to make. They were open about their lives, the challenges and struggles that they faced weren’t things they were ashamed of, instead, they were lessons that we were allowed to learn from.

In total honesty, I am not the first of my parents children to attend college. My older brother first went on a football scholarship. However, he was never the one for schooling, a personality quirk that he was well aware of. My parents never pushed him, they never threatened him with impending doom, failure or that he’d live a non successful life. They allowed him to choose, just like they did with all of us. And after a year, he chose not to go back.

I chose college. I have no idea why. I remember sitting at the kitchen table two months before graduation, staring at the wall, wondering what in the hell I was going to do. College seemed like the best way to put off having to actually be an adult, so it was the avenue that I chose. I never toured any of the colleges that I applied to, I never did any research on any of the schools, I never asked my parents where I should go. Instead, I googled my intended major and selected schools based off what piqued my clueless eighteen-year-old interests.

As you may have guessed, I have not had the smoothest college experience. In total I’ve attended three different schools, had three different majors and even took a year off out of sheer frustration. However, the lessons of dedication, determination and integrity that my parents taught me through their hard work, lead me back to college. Not to mention that one time my Mother looked at me and said “you’re going to be the first of my children to graduate. I am so proud of you”. If anything would get me back in a classroom, it would be that.

So, after a year sabbatical, I went to a different school with a new major (I’m talking about you, UNCG). I went in with the naive belief that my Dad wouldn’t fight me on filling out his side of the FASFA, that one textbook wouldn’t cost 400 dollars and that maybe I’d actually tour the campus before enrolling…none of that happened.

Let’s first address FASFA. The US Government has set forth this rule that all college attendees will have to submit a combined FASFA with both their parents and their own personal tax information. How do I know this nifty information? My father decided that since I had been living on my own with no help since I was twenty, I should fill out FASFA on my own…with no help. It was a disaster. Every year since, I get the same speech from my father that contains tasty titbits such as: “I don’t know why I have to do this every year.”, “Why does your school need to know this?!”, “Why can’t you just fill this out?” and the language just gets more colorful, he never remembers to have his tax information on hand and he always ends up having to call my mom. The whole process, which should only take thirty minutes, takes him two days.

Textbooks. This one comes with a classic tale, dating back to my freshmen year of college. I went to an out of state college, and my Mom heard that it was cheaper to rent textbooks online versus using the college bookstore. Syllabus week came and went, I sent my Mom the list of books that I needed and I received a phone call about four hours later. She was calling to let me know that textbooks are “way too expensive”. What she was expecting to cost maybe a hundred dollars was about four times over. Needless to say, I didn’t have ALL of the books that I needed.

Being a first generation college student comes with it’s own quirks. I rely heavily on my advisors for guidance, I make all my own phone calls (the financial aid office and I are really close), I explain class loads and why I’m always doing homework to my parents and I buy all my own books (thanks Mom). At times, it’s frustrating and overwhelming. I’d be lying if I tried to sit here and say that I don’t mind asking strangers questions that I’d rather ask my parents. There are times that I wish I had my parents past collegiate experiences to base my decisions on. But most often than not, I’m thankful for the challenges that I face. I’m thankful that my parents are always willing to listen to me talk about school, they’re willing to learn about school and they’re always more than willing to cheer me on. So while I mostly feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, I have an amazing support system that’s always encouraging me, pushing me to succeed and providing a haven where I can alleviate all my stress.

I wouldn’t be the first generation college student that I am without my parents past experiences. The dedication, hard work, determination and drive to succeed that my parents showed all throughout their work and personal lives is a large part of what drives me today. The diploma is a great perk, but it isn’t the real reason that I attend college. I attend college because I love to learn, I love to work hard and see myself succeed. But don’t get me wrong, seeing my parents tear up when I walk across that graduation stage will also be well worth it.   

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