First-Generation Students and the College Search

by
Assistant Director of Admission, Hawaii Pacific University

Relationships are instrumental to college search success for first-generation students.

The experience of every first-generation student is unique and different; there is no one-size-fits-all formula for student success. Although definitions may vary across institutions, first-generation students are typically defined as a student whose parent or guardian did not complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. If one’s parent earned a degree abroad, not in the United States, they are also typically considered first-generation American.

Forming valuable relationships

While the college admission process is challenging for every student, it can be much more difficult for a first-generation student, as their parents are less able to help in the application process. Given the complexity of the college search process—and the unique identities and experiences of each first-generation student—personal relationships between first-generation students and admission counselors can be one of the best resources to inform students in their selection of the college that is the best fit for them.

One of the most meaningful experiences during my time in higher education has been my friendship with Elise*. She and her family visited campus on a Friday evening, and they immediately reminded me of my family. I remember when my family and I visited my eventual college alma mater; we were taken aback that we were the only Hispanic family in the visitor lobby. There is hardly a moment of silence in my family of six, so we were hypersensitive to how quietly the other visitors were interacting. Similar to how my family dismissed the silence and returned to our own world, speaking Spanish amongst each other and laughing, so too did Elise’s family. I knew in that moment that Elise and I shared a lot more than the same first language.

After their campus tour, they requested to meet with the Office of Financial Aid. There wasn’t a Spanish-speaking counselor in that office, so I was asked to join them as a translator. Serving in this capacity began my relationship with Elise and her family. Throughout the year and a half that we have known each other, we have been able to build a relationship of trust and respect. She is an undocumented first-generation American college student who now serves as a resident assistant in her residence hall and is actively involved in the Unity Multicultural Education Center because she is passionate about issues of social justice and inclusivity.

The relationships my admission counselor colleagues and I have built with high school seniors, especially those who self-identity as first-generation college students, have taught me that trust grows gradually throughout the college search process. The sooner first-generation students can identify and connect with their high school guidance counselor and/or college admission counselors, the more time we have to provide them with as many resources as possible about the colleges and universities that interest them. This allows a student to make a thorough and well-reasoned choice in selecting their best-fit college.

Starting the college search process

To begin the college search process, I encourage you to use free resources like CollegeXpress.com and The College Board’s BigFuture. Search tools like these allow you to decide what factors are important to you in selecting a college: geographic proximity to home, religious affiliation, size, and so forth. It may also be worth broadening your college research to include the retention and graduation rates of all students and first-generation students in particular. The retention rate shows how many students begin the first year of college and continue to the second year; it can be a great measure of student academic support, financial aid, and overall happiness.

After you narrow your criteria down, it is helpful to make a list of several colleges that interest you. Take the time to explore each school’s website to learn about the resources offered to support the academic and collective wellbeing of students. Some support services that will be crucial to your success include academic advising to assist with the transition from high school to college, first-year experience programs to cultivate fellowship among your peers and mentors within the university, and programs within the school’s multicultural education center.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match

Reaching out to admission counselors

Taking the initiative to email or call an admission counselor at the colleges you are considering can also allow you to build on the knowledge you are collecting on a more personal level. Send an introductory email and explain you are a first-generation student. Ask what tips they may have for you as you prepare to build a competitive admission application; this is one of the most meaningful interactions you can have with your counselor.

Trust me, admission counselors are passionate about improving access to higher education for first-generation college students and students from underrepresented communities. While we see over 7,600 first-year applicants each year, I was able to personally get to know Elise and guide her through the application process while being cognizant of her and her family’s unique needs. When you reach out to us, we want to connect you with financial aid opportunities, as well as other resources that can specifically help you be successful in college.

As you begin to get more comfortable with the admission counselors you are working with, ask them to connect you with current students who have a similar background to yours so you can hear about their college search experience and transition. What are some obstacles they have faced? How do faculty, staff, and other students support them?

These interactions will allow you to narrow your college list even further. If you are able to, visiting college campuses is an excellent idea. It allows you to gain a better feel for academic and student life. Schedule a visit online, or call the school’s visit office to sign up for a campus tour, class visit, faculty meeting, or open house event. There is no cost or fee for you to participate in these events, but be mindful of the travel expenses you may incur, especially if you have to stay overnight when visiting a college away from home.

Related: How to Prepare for Your First Campus Visit

Before you schedule a visit, however, ask your admission counselor or the visit office if there are visit programs that are specifically designed for first-generation students. Many colleges have a fly-in programs and scholarship that will cover the cost of your visit, or an overnight visit program specifically for first-generation and/or students from underrepresented communities to get to know current college students and the resources the school offers to support them. There is often an accompanying program for your family to attend, so feel comfortable sharing this important part of the college search process with them.

Making college a reality

The experience of each first-generation student is unique, and the college search process ought to serve those individual needs. Creating a relationship between yourself and the admission counselors at your top schools empowers you to gather the information you need so you can make a well-informed decision and be truly confident as you select the college where you can grow and achieve your dreams.

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.

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