What is a first-generation college student?

Understanding what a first-generation college student is can be highly valuable. If you identify as a first-generation college student, you can access key resources and opportunities to overcome barriers to higher education. 

Despite being a simple term, the exact definition can vary, and many students might not realize their first-generation student status until later on. Yet, this knowledge can help you feel prepared to overcome challenges and access opportunities. 

That’s why it’s important to understand what a first-generation college student is. You can receive support to navigate the complexities of college or university and learn how to better understand first-gen peers. 


What is a first-generation college student? 

Simply put, these are students whose parents or legal guardians did not attend university or complete a 4-year university or college degree. If you have siblings or other family members who attended or completed university or college, you’re still considered to be a first-generation student. 

However, there are some additional considerations that can vary depending on the college. For example, you might still be considered a first-generation student if your parents:


  • Completed a degree outside of the United States
  • Obtained a degree as a non-traditional student over the age of 25
  • Started a college or university course but did not complete it 


For clarity, it can be useful to check the definitions of a first-generation student at colleges or universities of interest. These slight differences in definitions can determine the range of student support you get access to. 


Why does being a first-generation student matter?

notebooks and books on table with hand outreached

Unique Challenges

First-generation students are often ambitious, academically skilled individuals who know how to succeed. However, research has shown that first-gen students can face unique challenges, while they aim to break cycles of poverty, limited educational progression, and more. 

You might feel pressured to succeed, face financial difficulty, or experience feeling isolated while navigating a new environment. That’s why identifying yourself as a first-generation student is important. You can overcome these challenges with dedicated support and resources to help you reach your full potential. 


The Hidden Curriculum 

What does being a first-generation student really mean? This term highlights that you might not have the inside knowledge that is known as “social-cultural capital”. Parents with experience in higher education can act as a valuable resource for information and knowledge about navigating college or university. 

It can be easier to navigate complex application processes, academic cultures, and expectations with that insider social and cultural knowledge. These aspects, alongside policies, procedures, and the student experience can often be known as the “hidden curriculum”. 

The term first-generation student acknowledges this and allows you to access support so that you can attain that knowledge. This can make it easier for you to navigate academia, which can already come with stress and its own demands. 

If you do have other family members, close friends or peers with higher education experience, be sure to reach out to them too! They can also act as a great resource and share their knowledge with you.


Diverse backgrounds of First-Generation College Students

First-generation students tend to come from a diverse range of backgrounds. You might find that you have existing social or financial barriers, or even a range of strengths that differ from your peers. 

Some students are navigating other life responsibilities, such as jobs, children, caring roles, or family expectations, alongside their higher education. This means that support and resources can be highly valuable to help you navigate university or college with confidence and ease.


Support for First-Generation College Students

The exact support available will differ depending on your college or university. Admission officers can also help fill in informational gaps regarding the exact programs, services, and resources that are available. 

However, there are existing resources centers beyond higher education institutions that can be useful for first-generation students. For example, The Center for First-Generation Success is dedicated informational hub that promotes, and highlights “first-gen forward” colleges and universities

Some common types of support could include: 


Summer Bridge Programs 

These programmes are designed as a pre-orientation to prepare you for navigating college or university life. You might be able to attend workshops, network with other first-generation students, and receive more information about the support and resources available to you. Typically, these programmes run for a few weeks before you start college or university. 


Financial Aid

As a first-generation student, you might have access to grants, loans, and scholarships, such as those offered by First-Generation Scholars. While not all students come from low-income backgrounds, or experience significant financial difficulty, money worries can be a common pressure for all. Financial aid can reduce some stress for you as a student and make higher education more accessible. 


Academic Learning Support 

You can receive support to develop effective study skills, and better understand the academic expectations at university. There can be a lot to juggle from learning how to write assignments, cite information and research effectively, to navigating group work and presentations. You might get support via training workshops, peer mentors, or skilled advisors. 

You could also get access to learning tools that support and enhance learning. These tools are built to benefit all students, but can be even more valuable when navigating new and complex academic environments. Jamworks, an AI-powered automated note taking tool, is one example of a software designed to enhance the accessibility of education. 


Jamworks: AI-Powered Learning for First Generation Students 

This note taking tool captures and organizes learning materials into study resources using AI.  Jamworks can save you time and support your learning. This tool also offers individualized support that is personalized to you via JamAI, a dedicated chatbot for your learning materials. It can be difficult to access this kind of personalized learning, that’s why Jamworks makes it easier for students to learn independently at their own pace. 

If you feel Jamworks is the tool for you, consider asking your university or college if they can provide a license to the software. You can also join the Jamworks community to learn more, and better understand how this tool can helo you learn effectively.


Opportunities for Career Building

Students are often building their skillset for their careers after university or college with extra-curriculars and internships. Your university or college might offer dedicated networking events to help you access opportunities. Organizations like America Needs You are also focused on equipping first-generation students with skills to succeed after their degree. 

This highlights how valuable it can be to understand what a first-generation student is. You can access opportunities and resources that support you in education and beyond. Networking can also help you explore career options you might not have previously considered. 



As a first-gen student, you can receive mentorship from trained faculty, staff, or other first-generation students. This can help you bring that gap and better navigate the hidden curriculum with its social and cultural specifics. Mentoring can help you feel less isolated and connect with someone that understands and relates to your experiences. They can sign post you to resources, offer advice, and be a safe space for you when you face challenges.



College and university can be a difficult time for many students and take a toll on your mental wellbeing. For first-generation students, it can become difficult to manage an increased pressure to succeed, maintain grades, and juggle various responsibilities and expectations. 

Counseling can help you to get the emotional support and develop the right coping mechanisms. You can access the resources needed to manage your well-being and handle life stressors. Your college or university might offer this to you as student, making it easier to get the support you need.

Being a first-generation college student may come with unique challenges, so it is always worth speaking with your college’s student services to see what additional support you may be entitled to.

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