Transitioning to College for Families of First-Generation College Students
Author: Dr. Cynthia L. Alvarez (’07, M.A. ’08, Ph.D ’16)
First Year Experience, UCLA
A first-generation college student herself, Dr. Alvarez saw her parents experience college alongside her. Seeing her parents go through a rollercoaster of emotions as they navigated college with her inspired her research trajectory, resulting in years working and writing about Latina/o college access with a particular focus on parents. In this piece geared toward parents of first-generation college students, Dr. Alvarez shares what to expect, how to emotionally prepare for the transition, and how to remain supportive and positive as first-generation families embark on an exciting and important journey toward a college degree.
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Every so often I tease my mom about how she would cry every time her and my dad would drop me off at my residence hall after returning from a long drive from Indio, CA. About once a month – and sometimes every other week – my parents would drive 2.5 hours on a Saturday morning, pick me up from my residence hall at UCLA, drive the return 2.5 hours home, then repeat it all the next morning when they would drop me off. They missed me and I missed them, but because they could not afford to stay at a hotel in Los Angeles, this was the only option we had if we wanted to spend time together. And so, I re-tell this story to highlight that a college journey is not simply a student’s journey, but a journey the entire family experiences. My mom now laughs when she hears this story, but in retrospect, I understand that her tears were an open display of the difficulties they encountered as they embarked on our educational journey through college.
In my work as a researcher and practitioner, I have talked to hundreds of parents of first-generation college students. They share stories of excitement, hope, and concern, and bombard me with questions, such as “How can my student find a job while in college?,” “Will my student be ok?,” “What if something happens to them?,” and “What if they have a bad roommate?” These are commonly-asked questions, but when coupled with being first-generation college-goers, these questions are the source of stress, concern, and confusion. In my responses I share that college campuses employ students, that they have health clinics on-site, that RAs and residential staff are incredibly well-trained for emergencies, and that there are dining halls, grocery stores, and food pantries all around. This alleviates their concerns, but there is always so much more information to share on the college-going experience.
For all parents of first-generation students reading this, know that this is a time when you and your student will be challenged and rewarded. Your student will experience a learning curve as they try to balance social and academic time. Although your student won’t always be in class, most of that “free time” will be spent studying and utilizing resources across campus, including tutoring, visiting professors’ office hours, and researching. Although you may be used to them being around every weekend, coming home for Auntie’s birthday or the nephew’s bautismo, they may not be able to do so due to needing to study for midterms or finals, write a paper, or participate in a study group. Sometimes, going home can be a distraction because your student has developed a time structure that may no longer be compatible with yours.
This is all OK – trust that your student also misses being with family and that not going home is a sacrifice for them as well. Keep focused on the reasons they are missing time with family: to do well in their courses, have the needed time to perform to their best capability, and ultimately, earn their college degree. Know that there are many ways that you can support your student – and yourself – as you experience college together.
Be patient. Understand that they may be going through a difficult adjustment period as they learn the ways of the academy. College can be a culture shock for them, and this period can weigh on them quite a bit, but you are such an important source of support! Share your stories on how you’ve transitioned throughout your life (i.e. new country, new city, etc.). Reminders such as “Si Se Puede” go a long way in inspiring both of you and affirming that success in college is possible. You have provided examples of hard work for many years – use that as encouragement for your student. Although you may not have attended college in the U.S. and may feel like you cannot relate to your student’s experience in college, you understand and value hard work, perseverance, determination, and sacrifice. Finally, talk to other parents whose students have gone to college. If possible, attend any college-related workshop you can. Finding a community of support is invaluable during this journey and it will help you increase the support you give your student.
As it was for my parents, our time in college was riddled with concern and the unknown. However, despite the emotional rollercoaster we were on, we did our best to focus on the positives of the experience. It is important that as a family and community of first-generation college-goers, we remind ourselves that your student going to college is not only the culmination of their work, but yours as well. Together, you are taking a step that will influence the younger (and sometimes older) siblings, cousins, and friends. As my parents tell me, “Nada bueno en la vida es fácil” (nothing worth having comes easy). Fuerzas y adelante!