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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Tracewell

Help, I'm a first-generation college student!

When you hear the phrase "first-generation college student" you might not even know what this means! We typically think in terms of immigration when we hear "first generation" — people born outside the United States with neither parent being a US citizen, and now they are citizens. We are talking today not about immigration, but about being the first person in your immediate family to go to college — neither of your parents earned a four-year college or university degree.

Being first can be exciting! You’re a trailblazer and a pioneer, and it’s powerful and memorable to be first; just ask Neil Armstrong. It can also be overwhelming, confusing, and even terrifying. The good news is that you’re not alone and there is help. Recent data from the US Dept. of Education shows that over one-third of US college students have parents who didn’t attend college. That’s a lot of firsts! Resources exist to help support first-generation college students, including financial, academic, and social support.

First, the financial hurdle can appear insurmountable for many students, because a majority of first-generation college students are also low-income and/or minority students. Luckily, there are many government and private organizations that have the sole purpose of supporting first-generation college students.

Even more challenging than feeling like there’s no way you can afford college is the lack of “cultural capital” that many first-generation students have. This is just a fancy way of saying you don’t know the ropes. If no one in your family went to college, while they may be brilliant in a thousand other ways, your parents or caregivers likely don’t understand the college-going culture and the preparation it takes to do college searches, college visits, filling out the many applications, and navigating scholarships and budgets. All this on top of perhaps not even valuing college as a positive life choice.

Here’s a list of resources & links to start your search for the financial, academic, and social support you need as an upcoming first-generation college student:

“RaiseMe enables students to earn scholarships throughout high school, starting as early as 9th grade, for doing all the things that best prepare them to succeed, whether that’s getting good grades, volunteering in the community or joining an extracurricular.”

“Minds Matter connects driven and determined students from low-income families with the people, preparation and possibilities to succeed in college, create their future, and change the world.”

“Each year, we recruit a new cohort of LEDA Scholars – 100 qualified high school juniors who show leadership potential but lack the exposure and support they need to attend highly selective colleges. LEDA Scholars receive leadership training, writing instruction, standardized test preparation and a year of highly personalized guidance as they navigate the application and admissions process at the most competitive colleges. Throughout college and beyond, Scholars are offered ongoing advising, career counseling, postgraduate planning and community-building support to help them succeed and lead.”

“Free college admission advising for US high school juniors and seniors who are the first in their family to attend college. In partnership with CollegePoint, ScholarMatch supports high school students across the US with free virtual college advising. Students are paired with their own College Coach the summer before their senior year. Their College Coach will work one-on-one with the student throughout their senior year to support them with the college application process. Communication happens virtually—via video and phone calls, text messaging, and email—as they navigate college tasks.”

“College Greenlight is the leading college admissions ally for underrepresented students and the counselors, advisors, community-based organizations and schools supporting them. College Greenlight provides free tools and resources to simplify the college and scholarship search, and bridges the information gap to connect underrepresented students with unprecedented opportunities.” Visit their scholarship search engine which has filters for first-generation, minority, and other eligibility criteria.

I’m First! was created by nonprofit Center for Student Opportunity in 2013 to provide students who lack a family history of higher education with inspiration, information, and support on the road to and through college and is now an initiative of Strive for College—a national nonprofit that also runs a national online mentoring program for college-bound students.

“First-generation scholarships are awards for students who are the first in their family to go to college. The NCES defines first-generation college students as those whose parents never enrolled in post-secondary education.” Check out their list often for new updates.

Here’s a list of colleges and universities that cover 100% of financial need for all students. This means they cover the whole cost of attending their school. How much your family is able to pay is based on your completion of the FAFSAⓇ or CSS Profile. The cost that remains when they subtract your family’s contribution from the cost of attendance will be your financial need.

First-generation low-income students often don't have the support or resources for college testing preparation. A test-optional college allows students the choice of whether or not to submit SAT/ACT scores with their application. Most test-optional schools will take into consideration test scores if they're submitted but focus more on other aspects of the application that are strong predictors of success in college, such as essays, recommendations, grades, and coursework.

“ASPIRE is the state of Oregon's mentoring program to help students access education and training beyond high school. The program matches trained, supportive adult volunteer mentors with middle and high school students to help them develop a plan that meets their career and education goals.” Go here to find your local ASPIRE program.

A solution for first-gen students who feel in the dark about the process or prospect of going to college is knowing where to go for help and being willing to ask.

We can give you all the checklists in the world and all the information you need, but having a mentor or person to guide you, who is a college graduate, is invaluable. The things you don’t know as a first-generation student are vast. The college/career counselors here at Baker are another support system you can take advantage of, in addition to your teachers, regional counselors, or other Baker Charter Schools staff. Be the first and reach out today!

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