Challenges and Solutions for First-generation Students
If your parents didn’t attend post-secondary, this one’s for you
First published in jobpostings magazine
careers. education. ideas. all of it.
Tia Marie Eve Beaudoin
This May, I will be walking across the stage and graduating from the University of New Brunswick with an honours degree in political science with a minor in human resources. This grand event seems very far away right now, since I’m barely keeping on top of the massive pile of school work I have been wading through over the past month, as any university student can sympathize with. However, I know the big day is coming up.
I will somehow make it through the cloud of tears, shame, and cookie crumbs that is exam week. I will kick my own butt to the library until my thesis is finally complete. Finally, I will glue the final pictures into the scrapbook I will be gifting to my best friend on graduation day. After all these years of hard work, I will become not only a graduate of UNB, but the first university graduate in my family.
While doing some research for this post, I found out that we have a name. We’re called “first-generation students,” which reminded me of immigrant families and “first-generation Canadians.” Standing on nearly the other side of a bachelor degree, I can attest that it sometimes feels like I’ve become a member of a different country than my parents.
When I was in the first years of my degree, I pictured it like I was standing on a big hill. The more I learned the higher the hill, and my parents, extended family, and friends that had never gone to a post-secondary institution were at the bottom— in my mind they kept getting smaller and smaller as it was getting harder to relate to them. I don’t mean to belittle those who don’t have a higher education; I’m just trying to express that university fundamentally changes you, your outlook on the world, and how you think and see things.
Being a first-generation student is difficult, because suddenly you’re going through these changes but the people you’ve loved and respected your entire life are not. Due to those brand-new critical thinking skills that universities dispense by the pound, you begin to see their flaws more. Parents of first-generation students, although they have a great deal of wisdom and life experience, generally don’t understand the university environment. In addition to this, we don’t have the same starting line as students whose parents have had at least some university education. According to a study from 2012 in the Journal of College Student Development, first-generation students “are at a significant disadvantage across cognitive and psychosocial outcomes compared to students whose parents have at least some post-secondary education.” Turns out, when university graduates have children, they pass some of their value of education to their offspring, in turn making those kids more likely to do well in school and more likely to succeed in university.
If you’re a first-generation student like me, I assure you that you’re not alone. Some schools even have resources specifically with your challenges in mind! For example, the University of Ottawa has a “First Generation Program” to help first gens in their studies, and offer specialized workshops and financial aid. McMaster has a special web page specifically for first gens so they can see all the services, workshops, and bursaries being offered to them in one place. Ryerson is a part of The First Generation Project, which aims to help first gens already in school through networking and scholarships, as well as helping high school students navigate their education after high school.