Resilience of a First Generation Student: Five Lessons

Posted by Joel Bennett on

By Estefania Lopez, M.S. Candidate

First generation college students are often hardworking and adapt well to stress, but their well-being can suffer during the journey of adaptation. Learn and share five lessons from a first gen.

I could talk endlessly about being a first-generation college student. While being a 'first gen' has shaped my identity and work, it has also been extremely difficult and intimidating. Through my own struggle with resilience, I have learned some lessons that I want to share. I hope these lessons not only resonate with first gen students but also with others as well. 

Let’s start at my senior year of high school. I knew nothing about applying for college and less about what college was like. I did not even know what the SAT or ACT was. What I did know was that my Calculus teacher offered free tutoring for these tests. I decided to attend the tutorials and slowly learned about these tests. Then, I realized I knew nothing about applying for college. I took it upon myself to google as much as I could and talk to some trusted teachers about the process. That time-period of my life is now an immensely stressful blur to me. I learned an important lesson about self-determination and willingness.

Lesson #1: Use your resources: Being a first gen student, I could not turn to my parents for help because they were as lost as I was. What I could do was turn to the people around me who knew more or use other resources (the internet) to my advantage and become informed. I may not have had all the information I needed handed to me but I made sure I did my best to learn what I needed to move ahead. The willingness to reach out and ask for help will help you a lot.

After sorting through all the information, I finally settled on attending The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) and attended freshman orientation in summer 2016. I had no idea what a "GPA" was or how college classes worked. Just when I started to calm down (from getting to Lesson #1), the stress of once again feeling lost got much more intimidating. I was preparing to meet with my adviser, when I was handed a paper of all the classes I already received credit for. I was very dedicated to my academics in high school and took 11 AP (advanced placement) classes, of which I passed 10 tests. So, I figured I would get SOME credit for my scores in college.

I discovered that I had received credit for 15 college classes (totaling 48 credit hours). As most of my basic courses were taken care of, I would have an unusual set of classes my first semester. I ended signing up for junior-level psychology courses. These courses are hard enough for juniors, I would have to be taking them as a first gen freshman college student (who still barely knew what GPA was).

My first semester I took four classes (12 credit hours) and did not perform up to my standards. I got three Bs. This may be perfectly fine for anyone else, but not for me. I had only gotten three Bs in my entire high school career! I was devastated at first but eventually realized I had to give myself some credit. I reminded myself that these were junior-level classes and I passed. This was the second lesson I learned about -- getting perspective and self-compassion.

Lesson #2: Don’t beat yourself down, instead help yourself grow: You may not always perform as well as you hoped for but that shouldn’t be the end of the world. Examine the experience and gain knowledge. It is so easy to get lost in our emotions when we let ourselves down that we often forget we have the option to learn from our mistakes and grow.

It was the end of my freshman year spring semester and -- from the strength I acquired in Lessons #1 and # 2 -- I adjusted to college life, was in the midst of an 18hr semester, and was on track to a 4.0 GPA. Things were going smoothly, but my smooth sailing suddenly took a sharp turn when I found out that I was able to graduate in three semesters based on the credits I had left to take.

This was great news: I could graduate early! It also meant I had to quickly figure out what I wanted to do with my life (e.g. choose a major). If I took one summer class and 18-hour semesters I came to realize that I’d be able to graduate in two semesters with my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and with a Business minor. Two weeks later, I tested out of a technology class which then allowed me to enroll in the summer class I needed to fulfill my goal.

For the following two semesters, I took 18 hours and worked at a part-time job (at times even two). I graduated college in the spring of 2018, two years earlier than I anticipated. It was difficult, but do-able. I had to become very disciplined and manage my time. Achieving my goals led to the third lesson I learned, about commitment and organization.

Lesson #3: Time management is your best friend. I have never been good with time and I’m not saying time management comes easy. Time management requires commitment, a series of baby steps and discipline, but it will make a big difference and save you stress.

Before I move on, let me back up to the middle of the fall semester of my senior (AKA my "sophomore") year. As I did assignments in my business minor classes, I discovered that they overlapped with my psychology classes. Through this realization, I discovered there was a whole academic discipline and professional field of Industrial-Organizational (I/O) Psychology. Graduate school was now on my radar.

As I began to apply for the I/O master’s program at UTA, I was suddenly in high school again. I was anxious, lost, and afraid. My self-determination faltered (forgetting Lesson 1), I beat myself up (avoiding Lesson 2), and procrastinated (ignoring Lesson 3). I just could not bring myself to work on my application. Somehow, just through sheer "do what has to be done" mentality, I got myself together just in time and submitted my application the day of the deadline. My applying to graduate school was “a leap of faith” because I did not believe I would be accepted. I made the decision to hush the negative thoughts, take the leap, and three weeks later I got my acceptance letter. And three months later I graduated college at 19.

Lesson #4: If you never try, you will never know. Fear of failure should not stop you from trying because by letting the fear of failure win you overshadow your potential to succeed. Sometimes, you have to take those leaps of faith because they could change your life.

As I write this blog, I am beginning my second year of graduate school. Reminiscing on my first year, I see now how I put too much on my plate. I drowned myself in work and I was a stressed-out mess. I attended school full-time and worked 30 hours a week AND participated in extracurricular activities (yes, activities as in more than one) AND tried to maintain healthy friendships AND a serious relationship. As a result, I sacrificed my well-being: poor sleep, terrible diet, gave up exercising, and barely saw friends. As I sit here at the start of my second year, I realize I have learned the most important lesson.

Lesson #5: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. After years and years of pushing myself to my limit I finally realized that while achieving my goals is important, I was losing sight of my well-being. I always came second and was not taking care of myself the way I should have been. I am now putting myself first and am the happiest I have been in years.  

Being a first gen has been a lifelong learning experience. It has been tough and emotionally draining. But I will always be thankful for the life I have lived; I am strong and resilient individual with a strong work ethic. As you read through my journey it may have appeared as if I had my future figured out and easily made it through the past few years. That wasn’t the case. I was often lost and trying to figure everything as I went. I experienced immense stress and had periods in my life where I could not force myself to get out of bed because I was so worn out.

I share this because the perception is often that first gen students are hardworking intellectuals who know exactly what their future will be. I am here to tell you that’s not the case. Us first gens are hardworking and want a bright future. However, in the process of going through college we often overwork ourselves due to financial needs, struggle with managing classwork, and fall into depressive states we do not speak of.

As a new school year starts, I hope that we all keep in mind that even those who seem to have everything figured out might also be struggling. So be kind! And I hope you can apply one, if not all, of the five lessons that I learned that ultimately helped me.

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