Archived: Being Successful as a First-Generation Student of Color

Author: Rosmery Ipina Perez



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This essay will focus on the aspects that affect a first-generation college student of color’s success when it comes to colleges in the United States. I gathered information through academic sources that have previously studied the same topic. Throughout this essay we will be discussing why first-generation students of color find it difficult to be successful in college and the aspects that affect their success. Throughout this essay, it is discussed how family, mentors, peers, and institutions can affect a student’s success in college both academically and mentally. First-generation students of color have multiple challenges to overcome, including the lack of education, discrimination, and the lack of representation can also play a role in a student’s success.


First-generation students of color have always had to face extra challenges trying to become successful when it comes to higher education. From experiencing various new situations to facing discrimination, a first-generation student goes through it all. First generation students have very to little to no help from their parents academically. Due to this, they have to run the extra mile to achieve things that have not been achieved in their family. First-generation students are very goal driven, for they want to achieve more than their parents have so that they could help them in the future. Becoming successful in college is something that every college student want to achieve, especially first-generation students of color. There are many disadvantages first-generation students of color have to overcome like the lack of experience, the lack of money, the lack of people who help them academically, and the lack of proper education. Due to such factors, many first-generation college students struggle to become “successful” in college.  First-generation college students of color can be successful in colleges around the United States if they are provided with the necessary education beforehand, extra help from tutors while they are enrolled in universities and most importantly, they can achieve success by not setting unrealistic standards for themselves. 

First-generation students enter a brand new atmosphere when they start applying for colleges and when they enter college as well. They have to overcome many obstacles such as not being in the same level academically as wealthier students, and experiencing higher expectations because they want to break their family cycle (Schuyler et al).“Starting in K-12 education, FGSOC [First Generation Students of Color] are at an academic disadvantage due to systemic inequities, such as higher rates of poverty and lower quality classroom instruction (Bui, 2002; Ward et al., 2012) “ (Schuyler et al 15). These students often result in having lower acceptance rates when it comes to getting into college. The journal also emphasizes that, “In addition, many FGSOC receive very little support from parents/ guardians during the college application process (Pascarella et al., 2004), resulting in a challenging and frustrating experience (McCoy, 2014)” (Schuyler et al 15). Since their parents have no experience in applying to colleges, First-Generation college students essentially figure everything out by themselves and go through all of the college application process without receiving the benefit of parental guidance. 

Once first-generation college students realize how different from high school college is, “confusion, uncertainty, frustration, fear” (Hageman), all other emotions kick in. Often times, they start to ask themselves, “who can I talk to?” and sometimes that answer is “illusive for college”(Hageman). However, it is important to note that first-generation college students of color tend to be resilient in college because of the types of environments that they have been in (Hageman). Filling out their parents’ insurance papers and or filling out their parents’ tax papers when they were small because their parents could not fill them out helped them start preparing for college applications (Hageman). Although not the same, the paperwork of college applications can be similar. Because they have experienced how to fill out papers at a young age and how to be an adult at a much younger age than other students, they tend to want to break the cycle and protect their future children from experiencing the same things that they experienced. Young-teenagers from lower backgrounds can be resilient in college because they acquire motivation to be successful to essentially provide help to their parents in the future as well (Hageman). 

Wanting to succeed provides First-Generation college students with a lot of pressure and it can lead to the desire of perfectionism. College students tend to want to be successful when they enter college but instead of feeling more success at the top, students tend to have very low confidence in their ability to achieve greater levels of success (Hartley 118). These students often start to compare their success with other students’ success. “ Perhaps more important, it has pinpointed the family and other experiences that determine whether someone is likely to strive in a healthy way for demanding yet realistic and flexible goals or becomes a neurotic perfectionist, hooked on success, constantly reaching for demanding goals but never happy with the result” (Hartley 120). In other words, the expectation that is placed on them by their family can be one of the leading factors for the students to want to be perfect and not notice their success. The dean of Harvard even emphasized how these parental expectations that the students often place on themselves can lead to suicide (Hartley 123). In other words, a student’s success does not only depend on the academic aspect of college, but it also depends on mental health and on expectations and values that their family places on them.

Contrary to popular belief, the parents of first-generation college students of color  help their children. Although not academically, the parents of first-generation students do help them in the emotional aspect of applying and entering college. Parents are actually experiencing the same things that their children are experiencing at the same time (Harper et al). A parent’s mindset will affect and influence shaping the “views, expectations, and experiences about college” (Harper et al 540), that First-Generation college students of color have. It’s very difficult for parents of first generation students parents to be involved when it comes to helping their children because they tend to feel unwelcome when it comes to their childrens’ school setting (Harper et al). In other words “Parental support is associated with the academic adjustment and success of  Latino students from lower-income backgrounds (ONG, Phinney, & Dennis, 2006)” (Harper et al 542). This explains that having a good parent to child relationship helps a lot of first generation students to be more successful in college and essentially more successful in the transition from being a child to becoming an adult. In other words, although their parents cannot provide a college student with academic support or their studies they often provide financial and emotional support (Harper et al 520). Families encourage their children to attend and perform well in institutions whether it is directly or not so direct (Hodge 132). It is even argued that first-generation students’ parents have a higher influence on first-generation students of color then tutors and their peers do.

In order to make a student’s parents feel more comfortable and feel more familiar with their childrens’ studies, there needs to be support and representation in schools. Representation in schools and the representation of one’s culture is important in order for one to feel comfortable in an academic environment (Kalbakin). Parents express particular appreciation to programs that help them and for organization of student structured programs (Harper et al). When their student enrolls in a college dynamics change and first-generation students start to gain  and there starts to be more responsibility for students to be independent  and to make their own decisions. This sis why it is important for parents  to be comfortable and to feel represented in academic institutions because if they feel comfortable to be able to help their children whether it be emotionally or through any other way.

Parents help their children motivate their children to do better academically. Parent’s play a great role in their children being motivated (Dennis et al).  Considering that their peers might have negative influences on them, family can motivate students to endure through college. However, that motivation and expectations from their parents can turn into perfectionism and students can start to struggle to meet their expectations that their parents set on them (Hartley). Those pressures can lead students to sucicide and it can lead them to drop out of college as well (Hartley). Parents should learn and understand that their children suffer if they are constantly told the things that the parents want their children to and the expectations that they have for them. It’s best for parents to just support their children and build up their character so that their children don’t suffer because of the expectations that not only they put on their children but the expectations that the students put on themselves.

Although Parents do affect a college student’s success, they often are not the main reason for their students’ success. There are different factors that influence a first generation college student of color’s success in college. These factors include tutors, instructors, peers, and family. Even though parents are a factor that contribute to a student’s success in college the other factors contribute and build up to one another meaning that not just one of these things is more important than one another due to the academic aspect of college being just as important as the mental health aspect of college as well. 56% of entering college students are first-generation college students (Schuyler 112). This is why it’s important for institutions to provide first-generation college students with extra help by encouraging students to help each other.  Most importantly it is very important for professors, parents and tutors to make themselves available and open when it comes to helping these students who will need extra help.

First generation students can achieve success by looking for help and not trying to figure things out by themselves. Tutors can play an important role in helping a first-generation student of color’s  success. It has been proven that tutors can dictate whether a student is successful or not in college. Bianca N. Ramos, a first-generation student of color graduate student, emphasizes that tutors or mentors “have the opportunity to shape a student’s personal and professional development as well as encourage students to pursue their goals and help them build resilience in higher education” (Ramos 70). She emphasizes that tutoring is very important for first-generation students due to the fact that first generation students experience limited parent involvement academically and many obstacles sometimes discourage first generation students from even applying to college (Ramos 57). Ramos uses her own experience to emphasize how important mentors are for first generation college students of color. She argues that “Mentorship fosters genuine connections and provides support that first-generation students need when dealing with challenges in higher education” (Ramos 58). Based on her experience it is observed how important mentors are for a first-generation student of color’s success due to the very little academic resources they have while attending college other than their instructors and tutors which are considered as their mentors throughout their college career.

A first-generation student of color’s success can depend on whether they are provided with enough aid and representation as well. Being represented can help them feel more comfortable and it can create a safer space for students to reach out for help (Kabalkin 3). Colleges should address cultural barriers that affect college students of color. The lack of representation can not only affect a students academic performance but it can also affect them mentally, nicole Kabalkin from Upenn states “Yet, poor college outcomes for this distinct population, along with first-person student accounts of racist and exclusionary practices on campus, indicate that universities must do more to combat inequality on their campuses” (Kalbakin  3). In other words little to no validation or representation for students is present in many institutions and there are times where college students of color are heavily discriminated against. This affects the way students perform in schools. This also  affects a first-generation student’s mental health because not only do they have to deal with being the first to experience the hardships of college but they also have to deal with being a person of color as well. 

First-generation college students of color can achieve success by receiving help from many contributing factors which include: Mentors, family, and peers. They can achieve success but they cannot do it by themselves. As shown throughout this essay first-generation college students of color need guidance and need to feel supported by someone to not put too much pressure on their shoulders. All of these aspects are important when it comes to achieving success in college because mentors, family and peers can all influence a student’s performance in school. Hanging out with the wrong people can result in a student adopting a bad habit or in adopting a good habit that will help the student in their college life. Family shapes our values and essentially the way we see the world. A person’s family throughout the years shapes a person’s characters and views. Family also lifts up a college student emotionally, which is why it is very  important for first-generation students of color to be supported by family.

 Mentors will help each student fill in the academics that their parents do not provide. Throughout this essay it was noted that mentors provide the students with feedback, and they essentially make a student’s college career less complicated than it would be if the student were not to look for help. The testimony of Natalie Ramos, a graduate student at the University of Vermont provides feedback on how much mentors can help first-generation students of color understand their classes better and essentially help them feel welcomed at the University. With mentors students can achieve success. As well as feel motivated to attend their classes and graduate. 

Most importantly, a first generation college student of color can reach success by not being too hard on themselves and to recognize that it’s okay for them to use resources like their mentors and family for support when it comes to their college career and experience. The pressures that they experience are due to expectations from themselves or from their family. As discussed throughout this essay, expectations can lead to perfectionism, which can affect a students mental health. It is encouraged for parents to not put many expectations on their children and for first-generation students of color to not depend on just themselves to get through the college years. Parents, mentors, and institutions need to find a way to represent their students that feel under-represented and they could do this by involving other cultures into their campus and by having an open mind to treat every single student the same not mattering how they speak, what they look like, and where they come from. Academic institutions should also have people who speak different languages so that parents and students who are not comfortable with speaking english feel more comfortable to reach out for help to those people, as well as more organizations and clubs that help first generation-students in high school like dream team should exist, and lastly the tax money collected for schools should be evenly distributed throughout all of the schools so that all students have the same resources and the same opportunities when it comes to education. 


Works Cited Page 

Allard, Deiderie. “First-Generation College Students of Color’s Success at a Predominately White Institution: Exploring the Influence of Student Engagement in a High-Impact Program” University of North Florida,  UNF Graduate Theses and Dissertations, 911. 2019. Accessed 11 April 2022.

Bowers, Lashia, Robin Phelps-Ward, Courtney Allen, Keneisha Harrington, Travis C. Smith, Nikeetha Farfan D’Souza. “#MyTruthMatters: Photovoice Narratives Of Graduate Students Of Color At a Predominantly White  Institution.” Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research, vol.14, no.4, June 1, 2020, pp. 233-248. EBSCOhost Academic Premier, Accessed March 25, 2022.

Hageman, William and Tribune Newspapers Chicago Tribune. “When it’s tough to be first.” Chicago Tribune, 17 April 2012 at 12:00 am, Accessed 10 March 2022.

Hartley-Brewer, Elizabeth. “Hooked on success: Does ‘Success at any price’ impact health and happiness?.” New Economy, vol. 9, no.2, Jun. 2002, pp. 118. EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier, DOI:10.1111/1468-0041.00254. Accessed 6 March 2022.


Hodge, Alexa E, McNair Scholar. “First-Generation College Students: The Influence of Family on College Experience” Pennsylvania State University, McNair Journals, 28 March 2011, Accessed 2 April 2022.  

Harper, Cassandra Elena, Hao Zhu, and Judy Marquez Kiyama. “Parents and Families of First-Generation College Experience Their Own College Transition.” The Journal of Higher Education, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, Vol. 91, No.4, 540-564. EBSCOhost Academic Search Premier, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2019.1647583. Accessed 2 April 2022.

Jennis, Jessica M., Jean S. Phinney, and Lizette Ivy Chuateco. “The Role of Motivation, Parental Support, and Peer Support in the Academic Success of Ethnic Minority First-Generation College Students.”Journal of College Student Development, vol. 46, no. 3, May/June of 2005, pp. 223-236. Johns Hopkins University Press, Accessed April 27, 2022. 

Kabalkin, Nicole P., “Addressing Barriers to College Completion for BIPOC First-Generation Students: Recommendations to Improve Students’ Sense of Belonging and College Persistence Outcomes” (2021). Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Dissertations. 157. Accessed 10 March 2022. 

Obama, Michelle. Michelle Obama’s Best Advice For Students: How to Succeed in Life. YouTube, 11 March 2020, Accessed 10 March 2022. 


Ramos, Bianca Natalie  “Moving from Access to Success: How First-Generation Students of Color Can Build Resilience in Higher Education through Mentorship,” The Vermont Connection: Vol. 40, Article 9. 2019. Accessed 13 March 2022. 

Schuyler, Sophie W. Childs, Jonique R., and Poynton, Timothy A. “Promoting Success for First-Generation Students of Color: The Importance of Academic, Transitional Adjustment, and Mental Health Supports,” Journal of College Access: Vol. 6: Iss. 1, Article 4. August 2021, Accessed 9 March 2022.