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Confessions of a first-generation college student

By Cara McCarthy

I’ll admit – when I was a senior in high school, I had no idea where life was going to take me.

While everyone was worried about college applications, senior projects, and who they were taking to prom, I was worried about teaching myself and my parents how to fill out the FAFSA form, convincing my dad to co-sign thousands of dollars in student loans, and wondering if I was even good enough for college because I didn’t know the first thing about it.

According to the National Center of First-Generation Student Success (CFGSS), a student whose parents did not earn a four-year degree – a bachelor’s – is considered a first-generation college student.

My mother eventually earned her associate’s degree in nursing while simultaneously raising two teenagers and a toddler. My father was an electrician from the age of 18 after graduating from a vocational high school, as did I.

Much of what my siblings and I learned growing up was how to build – how to use our hands – rather than how to prepare for college.

I knew how to fix a hole in the wall and build a table before I knew what a bachelor’s degree was.

Don’t get me wrong – I am thankful that if my friends need their brakes repaired, I’m their woman. But when it came to looking at colleges, I was completely lost on where to start.

When I finally received my acceptance letters in the mail, it started setting in that I would soon have to apply for financial aid and student loans because I didn’t have a college fund from my parents.

I was going into uncharted waters alone.

According to, first-generation college students struggle with ?ve main aspects of college: understanding the application process, paying for college, feeling out of place in their new environment, feeling guilty, and learning how to use on-campus resources.

When it came to understanding the process of applying to college, I was already lost.

I started meeting with my guidance counselor weekly to make sure I was doing everything right. I asked my favorite English teacher and shop teacher to write my letters of recommendation. I wrote an essay that a family friend helped me edit several times before I submitted it.

Although my guidance counselor and teachers were incredible at helping me ?ll out applications, I had no idea what I was doing once I received my acceptance letters.

And my parents, loving as they are, knew less.

How can a first-generation student be expected to understand everything about college if their parents are just as uninformed on the subject as they?

Why do guidance counselors only talk to students – and not parents – about college?

College is not just a decision that affects one person. It affects the entire family emotionally, physically, and financially – as they all need to be involved in the process from start to finish.

What I needed more than anything was for my parents to receive the same information I did. I didn’t know how to ask for help because I was ashamed I wasn’t following the path the rest of my family had.

That isn’t to blame my parents – they didn’t know their youngest child was going to take a different route than they had.

The stress and anxiety of asking my father to co-sign four years’ worth of student loans was almost enough for me to quit the prospect of higher education altogether.

Too often, public schools assume a student’s parents and guardians know the ins and outs of college when the truth is, in 2016, 56% of college students nationally were first-generation, according to the CFGSS.

Parents and guardians need to be brought into the discussion when it comes to college because the truth is, as seniors in high school, we are still children and we still need our parents to be just as if not more informed on what a monumental decision such as college means for the entire family.

According to The Department of Education, approximately one-third of first-generation college students drop out within three years.

Thankfully, I was not one of them. But if society is going to put such an emphasis on people needing to go to college, it needs to ensure every first-generation student has the tools they need to succeed.

The first step is to make sure parents are just as informed as their children about higher education.

Secondly, we need to stop assuming that every student who wants to go to college knows everything about the process after they are accepted.

Additionally, high schools need to stop waiting for a student to speak up when it comes time to make decisions about what they will do after they graduate. Instead, educating students about what higher education entails needs to be implemented in school curriculums so they know how to make the right decisions for themselves and their families.

How is it that I spent four years in high school without learning a single thing about higher education?

Although I faced struggles while applying to college and learning to navigate college life once I arrived there, I am proud to say I will be wearing my bright-blue first-generation stole with pride this May at commencement.

But this accomplishment is not just for me.

It’s for my parents who supported me throughout this journey even when they did not have all of the answers.

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