Understanding the experience of being a first generation student is difficult; sometimes it seems like all students share the same issues and emotions, and other times it feels like nobody struggles the same way “first-gens” do.
Yet, being a first-generation student is truly a unique experience. These students are often highly motivated on their own, and they are often exceeding the expectations of everybody around them as they pioneer steps of life that haven’t been traversed by their parents.
Being a pioneer for your future without the wealth of fundamental knowledge and advice that so many other students receive is incredibly difficult. Higher education is a blind experience filled with time spent dwelling on the last decision and whether or not it’s the right one. If you’re a first-generation student and you’ve thrived in college enough to expand your ambitions to explore academics at a university abroad, then there’s some insight into how it might feel to go through yet another amazing experience.
The Struggles of Doing It First: Being the first in your immediate family to undertake higher education probably means you’re the first to study abroad. This comes with a whole set of challenges. You’ll never really be sure if you’ve done all of your study abroad pre-planning correctly or whether everything’s going to work out okay. Going through the process, nothing really feels certain, and it’s extremely stressful without having parents that have gone through the college process to at least be vaguely familiar with it. Furthermore, there’s often a correlation between first generation students and low income. Finances have always been extremely critical to me as a first generation student, and I wasn’t really sure of the financial implications of going abroad. My parents weren’t able to fund me, so I had to find a way to fund my own travels. Furthermore, if you’re like me, then your parents really haven’t been able to afford international travel. Thus, they can’t offer advice on living in a foreign culture alongside how to travel intelligently and safely. Finally, it feels like you’re lacking the parental support of emphasizing the importance and value of studying abroad. If you’ve found interest in studying abroad, it’s that much harder to take advantage of the experience to truly understand the ways you grow as opposed to somebody that has parents familiar to guide their learning process. In most ways, college felt confusing and overwhelming, but taking the extra step to study in a foreign setting as a first gen seems to make the struggles feel endless.
The Reward of Doing It First: If you’ve made it this far into the article, you might feel overwhelmed by all of the challenges facing first-generation students. However, studying abroad as a first generation student has been a ridiculously rewarding experience. I have grown and learned more about myself and the world than I could ever understand, and I did it on my own. I was responsible enough to plan in advance so I could fit studying abroad in my education. I was capable of coordinating and planning my trip to an entirely new university. I organized my finances to make the abroad experiences of a lifetime feasible. I was able to enter and adapt to an entirely different culture. I provided and lived independently with unfamiliar people and made new, lifelong friends. I succeeded in the academic challenge of a university in a different country. I learned the peculiarities – both good and bad – of my American culture back home. I planned and went on absolutely breathtaking adventures that I’ll never forget. I explored the most idyllic, isolated beaches surrounding by cliffs with a small waterfall that pours into the ocean. I found beaches where geothermally heated water is seeping through the sand, so you can dig a hole that will become a hot tub. I broke my fear barriers and went bungee jumping in the Nevis Canyon and skydiving over the Abel Tasman national park. I went caving in the majestic Fiordland majestic park where cyan-glowing worms illuminated the pathway. I climbed the treacherously difficult “Mount Doom” and visited the home of Frodo at “Hobbiton” from “The Lord of the Rings”. I camped at the base of “Mount Cook”, New Zealand’s highest mountain. I embraced the nuances of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, all the while making trips to Melbourne and Sydney in Australia. I took classes at New Zealand’s most prestigious university that offered entirely different perspectives and learning styles. I did all of this on my own ambition, and I cannot express how great it feels. Since I’ve been abroad, nothing feels impossible anymore.
I’m incredibly lucky to be exploring the world in ways that my parents haven’t had the opportunity to, all the while rigorously studying. Yes, it has been challenging to be a first generation student and lack some guidance. But successfully incorporating a once-in-a-lifetime experience into my academic experience as a first generation student has amplified the reward and value of doing it. I remember when I used to feel like there were a million barriers between me and ever going to a country like New Zealand for 6 months. Yet, that became my reality, and I truly feel on top of the world.
Now, more than ever, I’m proud to be a first generation student, and you should be too. When it seems like a million things are against you, embrace the struggle and accept the challenge. Keep pushing the boundaries and exploring new territories. I once was told, “let the world be your oyster.” It’s your job to go out in the world to shape yourself into a beautiful pearl. If you could succeed the barrier of college that a first-generation student faces, what can’t you do? To that end, good luck.
Brandon Barry is a Computer Engineering major at Brown University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in Spring of 2017. He is a blog writer for IFSA-Butler through the First Generation Scholarship program.