Navigating College as a First Generation College Student

By Chris Landeros •  Updated: 11/04/21 •  14 min read

What a First Generation College Student Needs to Know to About College

First Generation College Student standing on UCSB's Henley Gate

Do not attempt this stunt if you go to UCSB! I’m just built different.

Being the first person in your family to go to college is both the most exciting and most stressful journey any student will ever have to go through.

You’ve got through the SAT, stressed over your personal statement, and problem solved through the impossible questions on FAFSA like, what is your mom’s W-2 form (it’s the paper she gets every January from her employer for her taxes; hopefully this saved you 3 months of your life).

With all this out of the way, college should be pretty straight forward. Right?

SIIIKKKKEEEEE. You would think it does. Fortunately, this article will help you jump start everything you need to know about being a first generation college student. Filled with definitions, resources, scholarships, and tips on how to be successful in college as a first generation student.

What is a First Generation College Student?

Usually, a first generation college student is a college student whose parents (or legal guardian) never attended and completed a degree at a four year university or institution.

Essentially, if your parents didn’t receive a college degree from from UCLA, Harvard, University of Michigan, or any other University that offers four year degrees, then you are a first-generation student.

Two-year associate degrees from community colleges usually do not count either. There’s an important reason for this that I’ll get into later.

Even if your parents have trade school certifications, or studied and got a two year degree from another country, you still would be considered a first generation student.

Hell, your tia, tio, aunt, and uncle can all have bachelor degrees and YOU would STILL be considered first generation.

However, if your parents DID receive a four year degree and graduated in two years, you would NOT be considered a first gen student.

Wait, what does “first generation” mean then?

Within the common public, say your neighborhood or politics, first generation usually refers to immigrants who are the first generation of people to reside in said country. For instances, my parents immigrated from Mexico to the US and would be considered first generation immigrants.

However, having first generation immigrant parents doesn’t automatically mean you’re a first generation student. If my parents attended a four year institution like UCSB, and received a bachelor’s degree, then I wouldn’t be considered a first generation college student when I would attend.

In fact, I’ve even met friends who parents got four year degrees, even masters and PhDs, at universities outside the US like Oxford. They wouldn’t be considered first-generation students in college.

What if I had a First Generation Experience where my Parents have four year degrees but didn’t help me with College?

This is where the grey area of this definition but I’m noticing that although you wouldn’t be considered first gen, campus resources mainly aimed at first gen students are still open to your disposal. Personally, I would consider you with having a pseudo first gen experience.

Keep in mind that’s my personal view. Your college may have another definition when it comes to scholarships, resources, and orgs.

Why did you spend two paragraphs explaining the definition of first generation student?

There’s always confusion over what it means to be a first-generation college student. After four years of having to explain this to my friends, I had to clear this up.

What are the challenges first gen students face?

There’s so many challenges you’ll come across when navigating college including:

What do first generation college students need to know?

As a first generation college students, your biggest hurdle is not knowing what you don’t know.

There are millions of reasons why colleges invest so heavily in their first generation students. We lack structure, support, mentorship, and even professional connections.

Because of this, you often don’t even understand the immense advantages colleges offer. It’s not just the degree or life long friendships but also the priceless network of successful alums you will have at your disposal when it comes time to join the workforce.

To help you get a head start, here are five tips first generation college students should practice today in order to maximize their college experience!

Whether you are a first generation college student or someone who has no clue what to do in college, here’s your new college game plan.

1. Find a Mentor

No matter what advice you find online, no one can provide more relevant advice like a mentor at your school. Especially advice from another college student like an upperclassmen at your school.

However, mentors can range from class tutor, to an upperclassmen in the same major, college advisors, or even your resident hall’s Resident Assistant (or RA).

Why? Because they’ve been through the same first-year struggles you are going through. In the case of your advisor or Resident Assistant, they have been trained to direct you to resources that can help.

Here’s our step-by-step video on how to go about finding your next mentor.

Aren’t sure whether to read the textbook or just focus on homework problems? Ask your mentor! Want to know what are fun and easy GEs to take? Ask your mentor!

Your professor decided to not give out a study guide this time for this year’s final? Your mentor might have a Quizlet stashed away!

Having a mentor is extremely valuable and gives mentors an opportunity to protege someone whose shoes they were once in.

You can also have more than one mentor like my friend at UCLA who gets mentored weekly from more than 3 different CEOs and grad students! So DO NOT be afraid to ask if someone is willing to mentor you!

If you need help finding a mentor, you can read our detailed and practical guided HERE: Finding a Mentor

There’s a good chance your future mentor, or mentors, had their own mentors and want to share their expertise to help others succeed.

Above all, mentors get the incredible satisfaction of helping their mentees while polishing their ability to connect and aid others. So do not be afraid to seek one out and ask for help!

2. Ask for Help

When it comes to being a college student, nothing seems more foreign or intimidating than asking for helping.

Personally during high school, growing up with parents working late hours, I got used to figuring things out for myself. From learning how to cook to struggling over log equations in pre-cal, I basically forgot how to ask for help.

When I became a college student, it was the exact opposite. Concepts start to get harder and you start to fall behind when you don’t feel like asking for help.

But that’s just it. When you’re lost, the next important step is ask for help!

Ask your neighbor how to do a problem or even go to your professor’s office hours and ask them to explain the concept.

Too afraid to go to approach your professor? No worries, we got the perfect game plan in this article to get you over that hesitation: How to Talk to Your Professor

Girl at Physics Office Hours

And if your school offers free tutoring services, GO TO THEM!

Your tuition dollars are paying for these services so might as well get the most out of your money. Worst comes to worst, you hopefully found a mentor who can explain a topic or offer advice on tackling your classes.

The main takeaway, PEOPLE are WILLING to help you! So go ahead and ASK!

3. Find a Community

There will be times when you want a break from school and socialize with other students. Joining communities or organizations are a great way to make new connections and build lasting relationships.

That includes joining multicultural organizations, pledging for a fraternity or sorority, even working at a job at our school’s student resource center or the Recreational Center. These communities can really expand your social landscape and have you feeling welcomed and connected at your school.

Not only do you make friends and make valuable networks, you also obtained pillars of support.

Story time: I once pledge for a professional fraternity my freshman year and even though I didn’t cross, I still met a ton of cool people who I still hang out, study, and even travel with.

Navigating College as a First Generation College Student

Best of all, when I have trouble in a class or at home, I can rely on them to be supportive. Sometimes life comes at us hard but it’s easier to get back up when you have friends that got your back.

If you feel as though you’re still struggling to find peers who can relate to your first generation student experience, reach out to the organizations offered at your school. Most colleges and universities have Educational Opportunity Offices (EOP), or Student Services Offices (SSO).

These are specifically focused on helping low-income underrepresented students navigate through college with specialized advising, programs, and scholarships.

More often than not, many first generation college students qualify for these programs so be sure to reach to these orgs at your school!

Furthermore, some colleges may also have a Hispanic Serving Institution (or HSI) designations. Meaning they get extra funding to create additional resources such as creating transfer student centers and first generation student centers.

At UCSB, we have both the Transfer Students Center and the First Generation Center called ONDAS. They work alongside our first gen student organizations in order to create a sense of community on campus.

Tired of reading? We actually have a whole video outlining all five of our tips! Feel free to check it out

4. Don’t Worry (at Least Not Too Much) About Falling Behind

The first few quarters of college can be rough. Maybe you barely pass a class or you have no idea how you pulled a B in calculus after failing every midterm and quiz. When these things happen, you need to be able to go to a counselor or advisor and ask them for advise.


Talk to professors in Office Hours

Article on How to Talk to Your Professors in Office Hours

Often times, classes only get more and more challenging as the concepts build on each other and become increasingly complicated. Class competition also gets harder with the curve becoming less generous leaving you with the most adaptable and prepared students in your class.

The solution would be to work with a counselor who you trust or, if you’re urgently in need of advice, a mentor or upperclassmen who has their own graduation timeline figured out. They can help you access your academic abilities and find a solution to your schedule in way that suits you.

Class calendar schedule from shovel

An example would be if you are set to take Organic Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, all with their corresponding lab this Fall. If this schedule is too demanding for you, a counselor can point you to some different options.

This can include pushing physics to next year where your schedule is less demanding. Or when you have developed your time management and study skills allowing you to handle a heavier course load.

I’ve done this where the college workload becomes challenging to complete within the four years you’re “supposed” finish your degree.

I’ve either taken extra classes over the summer or found extra research classes that counted towards my major. Check out how I finessed additional units to graduate by conducting college research.


Now that you’re a first generation college student, you need a solid plan on how to tackle a class and prepare for a test.

Studying last minute for a Psych test worth 40% of your grade is a big mistake (no joke, I know, it sucks). Same goes for rereading your 6 articles for the Sociology midterm the day of the test is also never a recipe for success.

Developing the ability to differentiate between passive studying and active studying is a must! We go into greater detail of some of the best study strategies HERE and our best time management hack HERE

What are some Internships available to First Generation College Students?

I decided to create this list of cool PAID internships that first generation college students can apply to. These programs are focused on supporting marginalized groups including low-income students and students who identify as under-represented. 10/10 would recommend.

Need help finding an internship? Check out our guide on how first generation college students can find their first internship using their own resources and network.


Resources for First Generation College Students

College can be a super confusing four years so here are some online resources to help you get through it!

FAQ on First Generation College Students:

I know first generation students have a ton of questions. My goal is to answer some of your common questions here.

What scholarships are there for first generation college students?

Being a first-generation students comes with a ton of intersectionality. Students can come from low-income, underrepresented backgrounds, and live diverse experiences. I curated this list to hopefully curate scholarships specifically for aspiring first generation college students.

Why is it important to be a first-generation college student?

I can go on a whole rant but I’ll keep it short.

You will be the first in your family to completely change the course of not only your professional and financial success, but the success of your future generations.

You will have access to a fundamentally different view of life that will expose you to the disparities and problems you and your peers experience. But keep in mind, you’ll also have the capabilities of producing new solutions.

Are first generation college students more likely to drop out?

Yes. But why? … I have an answer.

Why do first-generation students fail?

Unfortunately, First generation college students lack the professional network, the academic preparation, and the social capital to maximize their college experience. We are stepping into a court with no home field advantage and the day you start you are already behind.

That’s why I made this site, the College Lighthouse. I wanted to document the best strategies and advice from my own experience and network.

After hanging out with other first generation students who became accountants, are attending medical school, law school, creating companies, I wanted to distill their lessons so we can bridge the opportunity gap we face.

My Final Thoughts for First Generation College Students

Regardless of what school you go to or what subject you are studying, it’s always best to find your niche.

Being a first-generation college student, or even someone new to the college experience, you aren’t going to know everything.

You might be plagued with uncertainty that others have the privilege of not worrying about. To become better acquainted with your school, peers, and your academics, here’s the advice I wish I had after years of stumbling over my own feet.

Best wishes,

Chris L.

Chris Landeros

My name is Christopher Landeros but you can call me Chris. I started this website after struggling to find relatable and relevant info for first-gen college students. I kept learning the ropes and was wondering why there wasn't a resource to show you how to practically navigate college. So here I am, creating the most in-depth content for College Lighthouse.