Being the First Generation in Your Family to go to University

Being the first generation in your family to attend higher education adds a layer of complexity to your university experience. Read on to hear about Emma's experience and where you may be able to find additional support.

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Being the first generation in your family to attend higher education adds a layer of complexity to your university experience alongside the usual worries of doing a degree, finding part-time work, trying to have a social life etc. Sometimes, it can mean missing important steps, experiences, or information because you lack the guidance of someone who has been through it all before.  

My name is Emma and I am the Insight and Retention Manager with GSU and I was the first generation in my family to attend University in 2010. I ended up doing both undergraduate and postgraduate study with each posing unique and nuanced challenges for someone who had no frame of reference for this new world.  

What does it mean to be first-generation? 

Literally, it means that you are either the first person, or the first generation, to go to University. Culturally and socially, it means that you do not have the support network of relatives who attended higher education, to offer you guidance in what to expect. It can mean not understanding what a lecture or seminar is, not knowing how to navigate student finance options or what a personal tutor is and therefore, how to make the most of that relationship. In a nutshell, it can mean having to figure things out for yourself more often than your peers. 

When I first attended university, I did not understand what a seminar or lecture was and what I was supposed to do there. It took me a while to figure out exactly what happened in those spaces because I couldn’t ask my parents or grandparents, all of whom had left education at 15/16 and I felt too embarrassed to ask my peers who all seemed to innately know what was going on. 

This carried through lots of my university experience and through to graduation where I had not known what to expect (or how expensive it would be), so was woefully unprepared when it came around. For me, it meant a day far less enjoyable than some of my peers who felt at home in this space, taking the same steps that their parents had done before them. I, however, was a fish out of water, feeling proud of myself but certainly as though I was occupying someone else’s world. 

For me, these feelings exacerbated at postgraduate level where things got harder, more formal and the relationship to academics grew closer. Now I had to do more to pretend to fit in and felt even less like I could ask for guidance. As I progressed through my studies, I noticed another big shift in my life; my interests, experiences and even the way I spoke had become vastly different to that of the rest of my family. This left me in a strange position, not feeling that I belonged at university but now also feeling different from those at home.  

There are many more experiences that I could detail but these feelings of isolation and confusion are often shared by those who are first generation. However, since I went to university there is much more awareness of this, more staff who are first generation themselves and more support available. 

How can I get support? 

Firstly, there are fantastic peer mentoring schemes available for incoming students to help with the transition to higher education. If you are first generation, it would make a huge difference to someone if you took on the mentor role or if you are still finding your feet, you can sign up to be a mentee. 

There are also lots of societies and communities that you can join via GSU. You could even make a society for first generation students to make those connections! Use opportunities like ‘Give it a go’ to try new experiences without the expense, make new friends and develop new interests.  

Being first generation gives you a unique perspective, so use it! Consider getting involved with programme reps, student assembly and GSU officers to advocate for change and even more support for first generation students. 

Book in with your personal tutor and use them to help fill in anything that might seem confusing at first. They have worked with hundreds of students and will not be surprised by anything you ask so make sure you chat with them. 

Finally, remember that you do belong here! University is a diverse place made better by those from different backgrounds. Use your experiences to your advantage, to inform your way of thinking and to progress your future career.  

If you want to hear more about the experiences of being a first-generation student, Universities UK’s podcast speaks to a PhD Student who is first in their family to attend higher education. You can listen for free, on their website.  

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