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Guest column: Reflections of a first generation student

Written by Gaby Pineda
Friday, 11 April 2014

I am the first in my family to attend university in Canada, a “first generation student.” According to the University of Toronto’s “First in the Family” program, first generation students are those whose parents and older siblings did not attend a post-secondary institution in Canada.

As cliché as it sounds, I had always hoped, and knew deep down, that I would eventually enter post-secondary education, even though the odds were stacked against me. I had dealt with learning difficulties in high school, was unsure of how I would pay tuition fees, and did not have anyone to help me in the process. My dad, who attended university in El Salvador, couldn’t help me choose schools and courses since Canadian programs are much more diverse.

If you are a first generation student, you may face some special challenges. Apart from the major ones such as financial barriers and navigating the bureaucracy when applying, there are potential generational clashes. Your parents may not understand why their child is now devoting all of their time to studying instead of being available for the family, while the student may find it hard to share his or her journey with them. Furthermore, according to first generation student Daniella Lorenz at TalentEgg, students can feel a lack of support and guilt.

My first experience in college nearly ended disastrously. I almost did not graduate due to an unsupportive environment, a learning disability diagnosis (hence the lack of support from my professors), and the fact that my abilities and the program requirements were mismatched. I also experienced isolation and the guilt of being in school. I constantly questioned myself – why was I wasting my time struggling to complete my program when I could be out there working and trying to help my family? This guilt is common among many first generation students, especially those from low-income families.  

But it’s not all doom and gloom. York University’s Vice President of Students says that half of York's student population is first generation (Toronto Star, 2008), and there are now first generation mentorship programs in many Ontario colleges that pair incoming students with a senior student who has been through the same experience. Seeking out clubs and groups on campus that align with your interests can also make a difference and make academic life much more tolerable. Finally, every campus has resources that address an array of student concerns, from essay help to counseling services.

As for me, I was fortunate to come across a bridging program that allowed me to get into university. This time things were more bearable as I was involved with several student groups and mentorship programs that made the transition to first year easier. As I now begin my second year at the University of Toronto, I look forward to eventually becoming a mentor myself and passing on what I’ve learned in the past few years.

My advice to those who are about to enter post-secondary education is:

• Never be afraid to seek out help or resources on campus, as your tuition goes toward this assistance.

• Sign up for a mentorship program, whether it is for first generation students or one that relates to your program. Your mentor can be an invaluable source of information.

• Maintain ties with your family and friends. Even if they cannot always relate to what you are doing, they are still your primary source of support when you need them.

Most importantly, though, make the best of your post-secondary experience. It may not be an easy journey, but your university and college days will be among the best years of your life.

This column is an edited version of an article that was published in Avenida Latina magazine.



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