Overcoming the Pressures and Challenges as a First-Generation College Student

When you Google “first-generation college student” you will find different definitions, each with slight variations. Some say it is a student who comes from a home where no immediate member has earned a four-year degree. Others say it is a student who comes from a home in which no one has ever gone to college.

However, regardless of the “correct” definition, one thing is true: first-generation college students face a number of challenges and psychological effects most other students do not face. This can include imposter syndrome, survivor’s guilt, stereotype threat, deficit thinking, cultural mismatch, and the many pressures that come with being “the first.”

For me, with my dad having never finished high school and my mom having only earned an associate degree, I relate to the former definition. And while I expected the pressures of being the first in my family to attend a four-year university, I never expected the other side effects.

I never expected the cultural mismatch or the acute case of imposter syndrome I experienced—and sometimes still experience.

Although, for the first year or so of college, they had no names. They were simply feelings of self-doubt, disconnection, and the need to overcompensate. What if they don’t think I am good enough? Why don’t my parents just understand that I have grown? Am I really qualified for my job? Can I really do it? These thoughts circulated in my head, careening against the sides of my skull and pushing me to work harder than I needed to and to over analyze every little thing I said and did.

If I just stayed later, worked more, and got as close to perfection as I could, I thought, then I would be satisfied and I wouldn’t have to worry about being good enough. I would not have to be worried that I did not try hard enough. After all, if I gave all I had, then no one could say that I should have done more. Right? But I was wrong. The more I did, the more I thought I needed to do. It was this never-ending cycle of stress and overcompensation to ease that stress. It got to a point where I was getting only 4 to 6 hours of sleep, staying on-campus from 8 am to 9 pm before a 1-hour commute back home, and trying to micromanage every aspect of my life.

The worst thing was that I thought there were no reasons to feel the way I felt, that I should not have been feeling that way. I constantly asked, what is wrong with me? I did not realize that others shared what I had felt and that they were based on actual concepts in psychology. I did not even realize that I was a first-generation college student until my second year in college. All I knew was that I did not feel right. I did not feel like most college students.

When I had first heard these terms—imposter syndrome, cultural mismatch, survivor’s guilt—I thought, oh, maybe that is what I was facing all along.

It had been during a peer advisor training session, and five other students and I had been sitting in a conference room on the third floor of Life Sciences. Our director was speaking about her own past experiences as a former first-generation college student, sharing what it was like for her and how we could help other students who may be experiencing similar issues.

All the while, I was overwhelmed by the likeness in our stories. While we had not experience the same things, the feelings and struggles were mutual. A student sitting across from me had burst out crying, revealing that she too experienced those feelings. Now, after working with hundreds of students and hearing their stories, I can certainly say that there are more students with similar experiences than one may think. They may not all be experiencing imposter syndrome or cultural mismatch like I am, but they do have their own struggles.

Imposter syndrome is a concept that describes the feeling of inadequacy and the fear of being exposed as an imposter or a fraud despite proof of one’s success and competence.

It was the reason why I constantly felt the need to prove myself and my worth, especially when it came to my job. Before coming to college, I had practically no leadership experience, so when I took on my role as a program coordinator and had to lead a team of student ambassadors, I thought, what right do I have to lead these people? For several months, whenever we would have meetings and I would have to delegate certain tasks and conduct trainings, I felt like a fraud. The aphorism “fake it till you make it” had never felt truer than in those moments.

Cultural mismatch, on the other hand, is a concept that describes the discordancy between the culture at home and the culture at school.

Despite having undergone changes as a person in college—after all, growth is just another aspect of college—when I was at home, I was back to being the daughter my parents expected me to be. In a matter of hours, I went from being the person my friends, colleagues, and professors saw to the person only my family saw. I was one person living two lives. As a commuter split between two cities, this disconnect was even more prevailing.

As I came to better understand these psychological phenomena, particularly in the context of first-generation college students and my own story, I slowly found ways to overcome them. Knowing that I wasn’t alone and that other students were also facing what I faced was a start. Talking to a counselor at UC Davis helped me realize that sometimes it is all in your head and you just need to let it out.

And sometimes you just have to tell your mind to shut up every once in a while. Know that while you may not be perfect or like anyone else, that does not matter. You are competent, you are knowledgeable, and you are successful. You have accomplished all that you have done because of your own abilities and capacities.

I do not know if the feelings and effects will ever cease to exist, but I now can say that I know what to do when they come about. And even when I don’t, I have come to realize that no matter what, I am who I am and that is all I can be. Take me or leave me.

3 followers

As a senior at UC Davis pursuing a B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior and a Professional Writing minor, I am also a peer advisor and a program coordinator for our Health Professions Advising Center. Through my roles, I meet and work with many students and organizations through advising, putting on workshops and special events, such as the UCD Pre-Health Conference, and creating material for students to use. I love working with people, along with reading, writing, and trying new things.

Want to start sharing your mind and have your voice heard?

Join our community of awesome contributing writers and start publishing now.

LEARN MORE


ENGAGE IN THE CONVERSATION

Overcoming the Pressures and Challenges as a First-Generation College Student

When you Google “first-generation college student” you will find different definitions, each with slight variations. Some say it is a student who comes from a home where no immediate member has earned a four-year degree. Others say it is a student who comes from a home in which no one has ever gone to college.

However, regardless of the “correct” definition, one thing is true: first-generation college students face a number of challenges and psychological effects most other students do not face. This can include imposter syndrome, survivor’s guilt, stereotype threat, deficit thinking, cultural mismatch, and the many pressures that come with being “the first.”

For me, with my dad having never finished high school and my mom having only earned an associate degree, I relate to the former definition. And while I expected the pressures of being the first in my family to attend a four-year university, I never expected the other side effects.

I never expected the cultural mismatch or the acute case of imposter syndrome I experienced—and sometimes still experience.

Although, for the first year or so of college, they had no names. They were simply feelings of self-doubt, disconnection, and the need to overcompensate. What if they don’t think I am good enough? Why don’t my parents just understand that I have grown? Am I really qualified for my job? Can I really do it? These thoughts circulated in my head, careening against the sides of my skull and pushing me to work harder than I needed to and to over analyze every little thing I said and did.

If I just stayed later, worked more, and got as close to perfection as I could, I thought, then I would be satisfied and I wouldn’t have to worry about being good enough. I would not have to be worried that I did not try hard enough. After all, if I gave all I had, then no one could say that I should have done more. Right? But I was wrong. The more I did, the more I thought I needed to do. It was this never-ending cycle of stress and overcompensation to ease that stress. It got to a point where I was getting only 4 to 6 hours of sleep, staying on-campus from 8 am to 9 pm before a 1-hour commute back home, and trying to micromanage every aspect of my life.

The worst thing was that I thought there were no reasons to feel the way I felt, that I should not have been feeling that way. I constantly asked, what is wrong with me? I did not realize that others shared what I had felt and that they were based on actual concepts in psychology. I did not even realize that I was a first-generation college student until my second year in college. All I knew was that I did not feel right. I did not feel like most college students.

When I had first heard these terms—imposter syndrome, cultural mismatch, survivor’s guilt—I thought, oh, maybe that is what I was facing all along.

It had been during a peer advisor training session, and five other students and I had been sitting in a conference room on the third floor of Life Sciences. Our director was speaking about her own past experiences as a former first-generation college student, sharing what it was like for her and how we could help other students who may be experiencing similar issues.

All the while, I was overwhelmed by the likeness in our stories. While we had not experience the same things, the feelings and struggles were mutual. A student sitting across from me had burst out crying, revealing that she too experienced those feelings. Now, after working with hundreds of students and hearing their stories, I can certainly say that there are more students with similar experiences than one may think. They may not all be experiencing imposter syndrome or cultural mismatch like I am, but they do have their own struggles.

Imposter syndrome is a concept that describes the feeling of inadequacy and the fear of being exposed as an imposter or a fraud despite proof of one’s success and competence.

It was the reason why I constantly felt the need to prove myself and my worth, especially when it came to my job. Before coming to college, I had practically no leadership experience, so when I took on my role as a program coordinator and had to lead a team of student ambassadors, I thought, what right do I have to lead these people? For several months, whenever we would have meetings and I would have to delegate certain tasks and conduct trainings, I felt like a fraud. The aphorism “fake it till you make it” had never felt truer than in those moments.

Cultural mismatch, on the other hand, is a concept that describes the discordancy between the culture at home and the culture at school.

Despite having undergone changes as a person in college—after all, growth is just another aspect of college—when I was at home, I was back to being the daughter my parents expected me to be. In a matter of hours, I went from being the person my friends, colleagues, and professors saw to the person only my family saw. I was one person living two lives. As a commuter split between two cities, this disconnect was even more prevailing.

As I came to better understand these psychological phenomena, particularly in the context of first-generation college students and my own story, I slowly found ways to overcome them. Knowing that I wasn’t alone and that other students were also facing what I faced was a start. Talking to a counselor at UC Davis helped me realize that sometimes it is all in your head and you just need to let it out.

And sometimes you just have to tell your mind to shut up every once in a while. Know that while you may not be perfect or like anyone else, that does not matter. You are competent, you are knowledgeable, and you are successful. You have accomplished all that you have done because of your own abilities and capacities.

I do not know if the feelings and effects will ever cease to exist, but I now can say that I know what to do when they come about. And even when I don’t, I have come to realize that no matter what, I am who I am and that is all I can be. Take me or leave me.

Scroll to top

Follow Us on Facebook - Stay Engaged!

Send this to a friend