What it Takes to Thrive: Reflections From a First-generation College Student

Jenna Tomasello, Policy Associate

In high school, I was naïve. As president of my class, an honor’s student, and someone who took advantage of all the electives and extra-curricular activities my school had to offer – from chorus to bowling – I thought I was well on my way to thrive in college. Problem was, I didn’t actually know how to get there, let alone understand how truly challenging college would be.

As a first-generation college student, the dos, don’ts, and how-tos of applying to college were not second nature to me. While my mother was familiar with the opportunities a college education offered and always encouraged me to go to college, she could offer little more than moral support to help me get there.

My situation is not unique. In fact, I know it’s quite common because I had the opportunity to talk with other first-generation college students and graduates that voiced similar sentiments about their experiences. As Raemond put it, “Being a first-generation student was significantly different than being a student whose parents had gone to college… Everyone else seemed to have an instructional manual in the form of their parents, where I kind of winged it.”

This AYPF video features the stories of several first-generation college students and graduates, and explores their challenges, sources of support, and recommendations for policymakers.

But I was fortunate to not have to wing it. While my parents couldn’t offer much help, I had a generous support system in the form of teachers, counselors, advisors, and mentors that helped get me to and through college. How can we ensure other first-generation students have the supports they need to access, transition, and succeed in college? Here are some examples of the sources of support I received that were also echoed by the first-generation students and graduates that shared their stories with me.

College Application Help

I would not have applied to college without the help of my high school guidance counselor who walked me though the entire college application process, from helping me complete the FAFSA to coaching me through getting letters of recommendation from my teachers. Similarly, Florence, another first-generation student, shared, “I was fortunate enough to be a part of First Generation College Bound where they walked us through the FAFSA forms, walked us through the college application forms, and even helped us get some of those fees waived.”

College Transition Programs

Once accepted into college, I was placed in a Student Support Services (SSS) summer bridge program aimed at acclimating first-generation and low-income students, like myself, to college life and the academic workload. Because of that program, I was able to enter my freshmen year with 6 college credits and acquired the knowhow to ask for help and access everything I would need on campus, from buying books and setting up my meal plan to something as simple as knowing where I could go for free printing. Emmanuel shared a similar experience, “When I got my acceptance letter… I also got a letter saying that I had an opportunity to participate in a pre-orientation program and then I knew everything was going to be alright… I felt that I could finally have a support system.”

Adult Advisors and Peer Mentors

However, my support system did not end with my participation in the summer bridge program. My advisors at SSS continued to support me throughout my four years of college, from coaching me on my writing to reminding me about important deadlines. My advisors were also instrumental in connecting me with other offices, opportunities, and mentors on campus that helped me realize my potential as a scholar and led to me to pursue a graduate degree.

Some of my most important mentors were my peers, other first-generation students that I had met though the summer bridge program, SSS, and the McNair Scholars Program, who I often turned to for emotional support when the challenges of balancing school full-time, work full-time, and my young adult life became overwhelming. It was a relief to learn that others were going through the same thing and that we had each other to lean on. According to April, “I wanted to be a peer mentor because I wanted to be able to help. As a first-generation student… I feel I can share my experiences and help them [other first-generation students] learn what they need to do to be successful in college.”

It is estimated that between one-third and one-half of college students are first-generation. However, fewer than one-third of these students who enroll in a four year college will graduate within six years. We need to do better. I’m confident that I would not be where I am today without the wealth of supports I received every step of the way. Let’s ensure every first-generation college student receives the access, transition, and success supports to thrive as I was able to.

For more AYPF resources on supporting first-generation college students, see:

  • Posts 1, 2, and 3 of our Advising Strategies for Supporting First-Generation College Students blog series
  • Webinars 1, 2, and 3 of our Moving the Needle for First-Generation College Students webinar series
  • Discussion group resource page on Providing a Continuum of Supports for First-Generation, Low-Income Students’ Success


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.