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Continuing your education is one of life’s most rewarding—and also challenging—experiences. For first-generation college students whose parents didn’t have the same opportunities, the financial, social, academic, and family issues can be amplified. For international graduate students, many of the challenges are cultural, like adjusting to a language barrier and getting used to a new set of social rules.

An essential part of students’ adjustment and enjoyment is becoming part of their community. “The key to staying in school for all students, regardless of background or identity, is making sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself both academically and socially,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at San Francisco State University.

Here, a first-generation community college student and international graduate student discuss what works.

How to intergrate academically and socially

“The key to staying in school for all students, regardless of your background or identity, is making sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself both academically and socially. [School administrators] have a responsibility to help you, but you have to also be responsible for yourself,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management at San Francisco State University. She recommends:

  • Go to new student orientation if it’s available for your program
  • Show up for class, whether it’s online or on campus
  • Take advantage of your professor’s office hours to discuss questions or ideas; get to know your faculty
  • Live near campus if you can
  • If you have to work, get a job at or close to school
  • Join a student club or start one

Community resources can help fill in the gaps, but be careful not to let them substitute for becoming involved on campus. “Is there a church where you can practice your faith? Are there opportunities to volunteer? A community-based organization can be an excellent place to connect with other people. Engage a faculty member who may have a similar background or share some of your experiences,” says Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook, vice president for student success and engagement at Wheelock College, Massachusetts.

Clifton Rawlings

Iván Rodriguez*

Second-year student | Business; Math and science
Cuesta College, California Transferring to California Polytechnic State University
—San Luis Obispo
* Name changed for privacy

When did you first decide you wanted to go to college?

I was told from an early age that it was important to go to college so I could get ahead in life and get a well-paying job. Getting an education is a top priority, and it has been my objective since before high school.

What level of support do you get from your family?

My family’s always encouraged me to continue my education; they help me both financially and emotionally. This is especially important to them since I’m the first member of the family to attend college.

How the admissions process proves your grit

“First-gen students often feel they live in two worlds: their family or community, and college,” says Amy Baldwin, author of The First-Generation College Experience (2011).

Family encouragement
“Family plays an important role in a first-gen student’s success,” says Baldwin. In a 2005 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 47 percent of first-generation college students cited their parents’ encouragement as a very important reason for going to college—slightly higher than that among non-first-generation students (43 percent).

Pressure to be a role model
 “In some cases, the student feels a lot of pressure to succeed. It’s called the ‘golden child syndrome,’ and while it seems like a positive—who wouldn’t want so many people excited about you going to college?—it can cause stress.” 
—AB

Fear of growing apart
“There may be some tension, and it is usually based on fear. Family members may fear that the student will not want to be around them any more or not be able to relate. Family members may be jealous of the student’s success and opportunities for a different life.”
—AB

Here’s what helps:

  1. “Look around your school for special programs or newsletters for family members, which can help them become more aware of what you’re facing.”
    —AB
  2. “Being honest, open, and communicative may not fix some of the issues, but will help.”
    —AB
  3. Know that it’s OK to struggle. “Sometimes we are taught that failing is not an option because of our circumstances. However, it’s okay to fail, to not understand what you want to do just yet, to be afraid. Just remember to get up and try again.”
    —Zhakaysha Garrett, First in the Family resident assistant/advisor, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

Do you feel pressure to do well?

Being the first comes with pressure. I feel I’m not just doing this for myself, but to live up to my family’s expectations. It’s not easy, but it is doable. My family makes it clear that I’ll have their support, no matter what. This gets me through tough times.

Did you have any difficulties during the transition to college?

I’m from Mexico, and the language barrier has always been a challenge. I never know how my professors will react once they find out I’m a first-generation immigrant. I was especially nervous about starting college, since I didn’t know what to expect.

Is going to college affecting your finances?

Financial matters have not been a concern yet. Community college remains affordable and receiving financial aid is relatively straightforward, as long as you realize such help is available and apply whenever possible. Family and financial aid can only get me so far, so a job to supplement my income is a must. Transferring to a four-year institution is uncharted territory and costs are high, so I’m preparing.

How to approach the financial challenge

First-generation college students are more likely to get a paid job to cover expenses, and their choice of school is more likely to be driven by financial factors, compared to their non-first-generation peers, according to research. Living at home can save money but may delay academic and social integration.

“I suggest that first-gen students ask a lot of questions and not be afraid to seek out help. College and universities sometimes assume that students understand some of the hidden costs of going to college,” says Baldwin. She recommends three key steps:

  1. Work with a counselor or advisor to determine how tuition, fees, books, and other expenses will be paid for; this is key to keeping track of costs and what you will owe if you decide to take loans.
  2. Consider applying for financial aid, including grants, loans, and scholarships; there are scholarships just for first-gen students. You may have to piece together money from different sources.
  3. Stay on track to graduate on time, which can reduce the costs of college, by earning good grades and choosing classes carefully.

Do you ever feel socially disconnected from your peers?

My biggest barrier is a cultural disconnect from my peers. Something that stumps me is how differently we treat friendships in the US. In my culture [Mexico] closeness is the name of the game, and that extends to family. Nicknames, the way we talk to each other and such, emphasize personal interactions. In America those seem to be more detached and cold.

How to handle a social disconnect: “Imposter syndrome”

“The term ‘impostor syndrome’ is used to describe the feelings that first-gen students face when they start school: that you don’t belong and someone will figure it out if you’re not careful! International students may also experience this.

“The truth is that many students—first-gen and those who are not first-gen—feel this way when they start. It often takes time to develop relationships and to find groups that you feel most comfortable in. This is normal,” says Baldwin. Her three tips:

  1. Your school may have a first-gen group on campus that you can join.
  2. Look for activities and groups that interest you, and join in.
  3. If you feel as though you cannot get connected in a positive way, talk with a counselor or advisor or even a professor. They may be able to point you to resources that can help you adjust.

Kelsey Noel

Lipi Mohanti

Graduate student | Masters in Business Administration
Simmons College, Massachusetts

Did you have any difficulties adjusting to U.S. culture when you first arrived?

I’m originally from India. Sometimes, when people are having conversations, they make jokes specific to the US or refer to movies I’m not familiar with, and that makes it difficult for me to understand. Another example is when people talk about US chain stores like T.J. Maxx® or Costco, which I didn’t know about before. As a result, I can hardly take part in those conversations.

How to deal with the culture clash

“It can be difficult for international students to integrate with domestic students. It requires specific soft skills, such as understanding the jokes or getting when sarcasm is used. There are also cultural rules about what is appropriate to say or how to respond during interactions,” says Erin Skelly, lead advisor for graduate student services and regulatory practice at the University of California, Berkeley.

Here’s what helps:

  1. “Find a small group of students from a similar background to share experiences with, and at the same time, learn gradually how to integrate.”
    —ES  International or cultural clubs on campus are a good place to start.
  2. Have a passion for Pilates? Take a class or join a club sports team at your school or in your community. A shared interest will help you meet people.
  3. If English is not your first language, practice speaking it as much as you can. Ask people to speak more slowly if you’re having a hard time keeping up.
  4. “Step out and get as much social exposure as possible. Engaging with other people and learning about their unique backgrounds will gradually build confidence.” —ES
  5. Connect with the international office at your school. They might offer American culture courses, provide opportunities to share your culture with other students, and give additional support.
+ Stories and advice from international students

Was language an additional barrier?

I am fluent in English, but initially it was very hard to follow what people were saying. I thought they were speaking very fast, and I struggled when they used abbreviations or certain expressions or made references that I didn’t know.

How are you handling the financial cost of US education?

The cost is very high for me. Even after receiving a scholarship, I’m struggling every semester to figure out how to pay tuition. Sometimes I feel I may not be able to continue next semester.

Financial support for international students

Hidden costs
“Besides tuition, the cost of living is often very high in the US compared to other countries. It’s difficult to translate the reality of the numbers on paper before international students arrive here. It can be an unpleasant surprise to find out that housing and other costs are much higher than expected once it all adds up. However, graduate students may have access to more avenues for financial support other than loans.”
—Erin Skelly, lead advisor for graduate student services and regulatory practice, University of California, Berkeley

Options for financial support
Federal and state loans and grants are not usually offered to international students. However, graduate students might be eligible for scholarships, teaching assistantships, or research-based positions through their universities. There are also independent scholarships, loans, and grants. Check with your school’s international or financial aid office for a list of options.

Here are some resources to get you started:

How did your academic expectations match up with reality?

The Indian education system emphasizes theoretical knowledge and reproducing it in exams. There, the focus is on individual study, rather than class participation and weekly assignments. I like the US system, but I feel rushed in some classes; students could be given more time.

Overall, has your experience as a student in the U.S. been positive?

Definitely! The traditional Indian education system is a lot different from the US education system, and I’ve been able to learn a lot from Simmons College. I feel US colleges focus more on practical knowledge and hands-on experience. That’s what I love most about it.

Has your time away affected your relationship with your family?

There is always a high expectation to succeed when you’re in an MBA program. My parents are back home, so being here has taken away some family time. I’m here with my husband, so I get to see him every day. I’m happy to have him for support during difficult times, plus I also have friends in college and outside of it.

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