Firsthand advice for first-generation college students

Being the first person in your family to attend college is like stepping into a world that is as exciting as it is unknown. As a first-generation student on the path toward your undergraduate degree, you’re a trailblazer.

It can take a lot to commit to pursuing a college degree when you have little guidance in the realm of higher education. As qualified as you may be academically, it will take more than brains and sheer determination to succeed.

That’s why it’s important to find a university that is equipped to support you in your journey. We spoke with some first-gen students from Mount Mary University (MMU) who are well on their way to earning their bachelor’s degrees. As you learn a bit more about their experiences, see whether their advice can help you prepare for your own first-generation success.

Find a school that will support your needs as a first-gen student

You already know that the journey toward earning a degree will present challenges along the way—and first-generation students are often less likely to receive the support they need. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education revealed that just 20 percent of first-generation college students obtained a bachelor’s degree 10 years after their sophomore year in high school, compared to 42 percent of continuing-generation students.

While there are numerous factors that can be studied within statistics like these, researchers believe there’s one key factor that makes all the difference.

According to Dr. Sarah E. Whitley and the Center for First-Generation Student Success, the key factor for success is this: Find a school that knows how to support you through the hurdles and that prioritizes the success of first-gen students like you.

“There are many organizations promoting important access work to encourage college-going for first-generation students, but unless those students enter institutions that were created with them in mind, the ability to foster success is limited,” Dr. Whitely writes.

Earning the distinction of being 2022’s most economically and ethnically diverse regional institution in the Midwest, Mount Mary University has been recognized as one of the highest rated private institutions for social mobility—a measurement that tracks the successful and timely graduation rate of diverse students. In fact, nearly 35 percent of MMU’s 2021 undergraduate student class included first-gen students.

How MMU supports first-generation students

Bianca Alva, a Mexican-American student who grew up speaking Spanish, ignored the naysayers who told her that college would be too difficult and that she’d eventually be dropping out. Defying the odds, she just completed her junior year at Mount Mary University and is on her way toward a degree in early childhood elementary education.

Every day is a challenge, Alva admits. But while her academic journey has been difficult, she wouldn’t change a thing about her path because it’s helped her become who she is today.

Alva’s family is proud of her accomplishments, but because she’s the first one to go to college, she notes that they don’t always understand the pressure she’s under. She credits MMU’s strong support network for keeping her going during the rough patches; Alva knows that she has people who care about her to lift her back up.

Another first-generation student, Giselle Martin Gomez, had the advantage of an older sister who attended MMU, and she took her sister’s advice to establish a strong network immediately after she got into the school.

As soon as she found out she was accepted, Gomez signed up for the Promise Program, a federally funded TRIO Student Support Services program that provides academic, career and financial support to 140 first-generation and limited-income college students each year. The program provides holistic support to help students remain in good academic standing, persist in college, and graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Now a college junior, she continues to enjoy the benefits of tutoring sessions, peer mentors, a drop-in lounge with free snacks, and special events. Through her campus job as an admissions tour guide, Gomez also leads tours with prospective students and their families during which she talks up the Promise Program and Mount Mary University’s other support resources every chance she gets.

In addition to the Promise Program, MMU offers many other resources that can provide first-generation students with academic support, enrichment and, in many cases, generous financial assistance. Do note, however, that some of them are only open to students who meet specific qualifications.  Students in the Grace Scholars Program, for example, must be residents of Milwaukee and meet other requirements. The Jewel Scholars Program provides support for qualified students in STEM studies.

Other support initiatives are set up to benefit all MMU students, regardless of their student status. Mount Mary University has been awarded $16.8 million in federal grants, most of which include support measures designed to improve overall retention and graduation rates, while also aiming to remove barriers for women to work in professions in which they are underrepresented.

5 tips for first-gen success

Amidst the inevitable challenges, there are a number of helpful strategies first-gen students can utilize when getting ready for college. Not surprisingly, most of them involve being prepared, both mentally and physically.

1. Prepare yourself ahead of time

Planning to just wing it? Both the experts and the students agree that this is not the right approach. Remember how Gomez sought out the Promise Program as soon as she was accepted? She knew she’d encounter challenges that would require support, so she put her support network in place ahead of time.

And here’s the great news: As an MMU student, you can sign up for the Promise Program at any point in your college career. So even if college is already underway, you don’t have to feel like the opportunity has passed. You can still join and take full advantage of the support.

2. Sharpen relevant skills in advance

The rigor of college programs will be a bit more intense than what you grew accustomed to in high school. Don’t let your study skills lag during the summer between high school and college. Be sure to read and brush up on academic subjects when you can.

3. Be organized

Both Alva and Gomez experimented with using planners to stay organized, but they found that keeping solid to-do lists worked best for them. Whether it’s keeping detailed notes, planning your schedule out ahead of time or another method, it’s important to find what works for you

4. Maintain a good work-life balance

In addition to her full-time studies, Alva is also her brother’s caregiver, which can be a demanding duty. She’s learned that if she wants to thrive in college, she must work hard to take care of not only her schoolwork and her loved ones, but also herself. For her, that meant finding a high-quality, flexible program that would help support her needs each step of the way.

5. Be responsible with your time and energy

One key to finding an optimal effectiveness as a student or professional is to practice self-care. Set aside time for relaxation and fun in order to avoid the common feeling of burnout that many first-gen students experience. Alva, for example, taught herself a new hobby, learning to crochet by watching YouTube.

Find the guidance you need at Mount Mary

Being the first in your family to attend college can be an intensive lesson both in independence and in the power of having a strong network.

Recent MMU alum De'Shauna Hughes wants other first-gen students to know that the Promise Program gave her a safe space to vent when she was frustrated, and a place to seek support when she struggled. Hughes appreciated the takeaways that she remembers to this day, including financial literacy lessons, resume-writing tips, organizational hacks and personal wellness.

The hardest part? Putting herself out there on her very first day. But Hughes felt motivated to keep coming back to the supportive environment she found at MMU—a college environment that helped her build up her confidence and ultimately reach her goal.

If you’re curious about joining the ranks of first-gen students who write their success stories at MMU, learn more about the various learning opportunities that await you at Mount Mary University today.