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How To Support Your First-Generation College Student

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Let me start this article by making a confession: I am not a parent.

And, even if I were, my child wouldn’t be the first in my family to go to college.

So, why am I even writing this article? Because I was a first-generation college student who was lucky enough to have great parents who encouraged and challenged me. Their support and guidance ­- even without experience - pushed me to succeed.

My parents were world-class cheerleaders for my continued education and there are a number of things they did (either intentionally or accidentally) that still stick with me as fundamental in helping me find a path to college.

I want to share these moments, as a way to help other parents understand what they can do to help motivate, inspire, and support their teen to go on to earn a degree.

Start early, talk often

It may seem strange for a first-generation student, but college was never an option for me.

From a very young age, my parents made it clear that I would go to college after graduating from high school. They said it aloud and communicated it to me, regularly.

Not only that, but they used their own tough situations and financial struggles as a way to drive the point home - teaching moments. It was clear that my parents wanted me to have easier lives than they had, and a college education was a way to make that happen.

Set expectations, not limits

“You get into college, and we’ll figure out how to pay for it.”

I heard this a lot growing up. It’s important to note that my parents were not wealthy, nor did I have some nest egg saved up for college. Instead, I had an expectation - I would go to college - without a limit on what was possible or what we could afford.

This was critical, in my mind, to much of my ambition to go to college. It never felt like anything was out of reach. Even if we had to make tough decisions when it came time to talk about money, the feeling of opportunity drove me to push myself throughout high school.

Connect the dots

As a student, it’s easy to think that life happens in sequence. You’ve spent 12 years advancing from one step to the next, with little or no resistance. Things seem to happen automatically.

College is not the same way. As we’ve seen from recent Millennial unemployment, there is no job guarantee upon the completion of your degree. Instead, college is a step along the journey toward your career.

My parents made that abundantly clear to me, and used their own work experience to help me understand the need to position myself to graduate with not just a piece of paper, but a set of skills that would earn me a job and lead me toward a career.

As a parent, you can help your student understand this as well. Have discussions not just about going to college, but what going to college means in a broader context. Why go to college? What does it mean? What happens when you graduate?

Push when it matters

I can only speak with certainty about my own experience, but I would be willing to bet that almost all first-generation students have a moment during which they almost back out.

No matter how much discussion, preparation, and work has gone into the idea of going to college, when the moment comes to actually take that last step, it’s a really scary feeling. As a student, you’re committing to something much bigger than anything you’ve ever experienced. There is a lot of responsibility, a lot of opportunity for failure and rejection.

For me, I remember it vividly. I remember telling my mother that I was having second thoughts, that I was thinking about doing something else.

It was at exactly this moment that my parents stepped in to push me. They saw my hesitation and matched it with a clear message: You’ve made it this far, don’t stop now.

That final nudge was critical to pushing me to step outside of my comfort zone and follow through with my dreams of going to college.

Ask for help

As the parent of a first-generation student, one of the best things you can do is to learn to ask for help.

Not only can you gain valuable guidance for your student’s college search process, but your willingness to seek help sets an example for your student.

Entering college as a first-gen student can be scary, and often requires asking for help, even when it may be uncomfortable to do so. By asking for help yourself, you show your student that there is no shame in it.

I know that as students, we don’t always do the best job of showing our appreciation for our parents. But, I can guarantee you that after all is said and done, your student will appreciate your love and support through this process.

College can be scary and challenging for both parents and students, but at the end of the day, the reward is well worth the trouble.

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