Tips for first-generation, low-income college students

This guest post is by Lynda Lopez, a graduate of the University of Chicago and a Chicago public school.

I never expected a student like me to struggle in college. I graduated in the top five percent of my class, had been awarded a Questbridge Scholarship to attend the University of Chicago and had always been seen as a “great” student.

Seek a Support Network

As a low-income, first-generation college student at an elite school, there was a lot I wasn’t prepared to tackle at the U of C. Throughout high school, I had always had the support of my high school counselor, my teachers and my close friends. This strong support network, coupled with my hard work, allowed a student like me to flourish. Once at U of C, this support network was essentially gone. I was at a new place and I was expected to figure everything out on my own.

I struggled to thrive my freshman year, both socially and academically. I didn’t have the study skills or time management skills to be able to do well academically, and I hadn’t gone to an elite high school like many of my peers. Socially, I found it tough to find students to relate to.

By the time my sophomore year rolled around, I was ready to leave. I just wasn’t sure I could do well and be happy for three more years. Through the encouragement of a friend, I decided to stay. That year, I tried very hard to find a social niche: I explored various clubs in the hope of finding a community. I also tried to figure out my academic direction. I wasn’t completely sure what to major in and wasn’t sure who to ask for help. As a first-generation student, I couldn’t ask my parents for career advice.

Throughout high school, I had various adult mentors, and their support always ensured that I thrived despite my lack of academic guidance from home. I attempted to fill that void in college by seeking adult mentorship and guidance throughout the university, but I had a hard time finding people who understood my experience. I often found that the advice people would give me was so general that it could apply to any student. As a low-income, first-generation student, I felt that there were particularities to my experience that few were acknowledging. The lack of peer support, coupled with lack of adult mentorship, further discouraged me.

Create a Community

Over time, despite my efforts to be a better student, I found that the lack of a community hindered these efforts. I was constantly distracted by this feeling of being socially isolated. I realized that a community for low-income and first-generation college students didn’t exist, but that I could help create one. With the help of a few other students, I helped to found the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance. We wanted this group to be a space where all low-income and/or first-generation college students could build community, in addition to discussing the ways in which the U of C could better support this population.

Over the past year, we have helped elevate the conversation around low-income and first-generation college students. Last year, we launched the Facebook page “UChicago Class Confessions” on which students submitted anonymous confessions related to socioeconomic class. We also had a student panel discussion on low-income students. This year, we formed an economic diversity task force with administrators from throughout the university.

Our efforts come with the understanding that individual efforts by students can only go so far. Low-income, first-generation college students need the support of the institution in addition to infrastructure in order to find the appropriate social support.

What First-Generation, Low-Income College Students Need

There are several things that would have eased my college experience. A student group like the one I founded might have made it easier to find a social support network. Now it exists, so I hope it continues to grow and provide further resources for the low-income, first-generation student community. A university staff member or an office dedicated to low-income, first-generation students would have made it easier to find mentorship and guidance from someone that works with this population. A pre-orientation or summer bridge program might have helped me immensely in developing relationships with adults and peers in the program, in addition to easing the transition to college. One such program exists for incoming freshman at the U of C, but it’s unclear how many students find out about it.

I am proud to be graduating, but it’s bittersweet. While I would like to say my pursuit for academic knowledge defined my experience, this isn’t the case. I loved studying Romance Languages and it has forever enriched my life for the better, but the struggles are so much more salient to my experience than the academic gains. College came to be dominated by the lack of a community and institutional support.

Low-income, first-generation students are still the minority at colleges and universities, particularly at elite colleges, but all institutions need to make efforts to ensure that this growing population can fully thrive throughout their four years of college. It’s not enough to give them a scholarship. Low-income, first-generation students can no longer be the invisible minority on campus.

Tips for Future Low-Income, First-Generation College Students

  1. Research colleges: Before you apply, look for universities that already have an infrastructure to support low-income, first-generation students, such as offices, bridge programs and mentoring programs. Beyond academic reputation, it’s crucial to look for schools with resources already in place.
  2. Find mentors: Before and after arriving on campus, prioritize finding mentors, either through helpful upperclassmen or staff members.
  3. Build your social network: If possible, participate in a bridge program through your college and make an effort to meet people. After arriving on campus, join student groups dedicated to low-income, first-generation students or other groups you might be interested in. Overall, focus on building a social network that will support you throughout college.
  4. Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find out about tutoring and academic resources. Ask your professors for help. Remember, they are being paid to help you, so never feel like you don’t have the right to take up their time.

Lynda Lopez co-founded the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance, a student group dedicated to low-income, first-generation students at the U of C. She also interned with the UChicago Promise, a program dedicated to increasing college access for city of Chicago students.  First Generation Student originally published this post.

What suggestion can you offer first-generation, low-income students as they prepare to start or continue their college education?

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