The Internal Struggles Of First-Generation University Students

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Since I was a toddler, my grandmother would hold me in her arms, look me in the eye and tell me: ‘One day, you will become a scientist’. She didn’t know for sure, but this idea was instilled in me at an early point in my life.

Coming from a family of farmers and factory workers, both my parents did not possess the financial resources to attend university. Although they are now happy, as a homemaker and a First Lieutenant in the Italian Navy, there was a time when they regretted not having the same opportunities as their peers. Therefore, ever since I was barely an infant, my parents directed my attention towards developing my already curious mind. They were lucky to have a child who did not care for running around and jumping but preferred to sit reading a book, drawing, or writing.

When it came to choosing which type of high school to attend at age 14, I knew I wanted to go to university afterwards. For those of you not familiar with the Italian school system, there are certain high schools that require students to continue their studies at university. Since I attended this type of school, I spent five years thinking about my passions, abilities, and my future career path.

I cannot describe the pressure that my family put me under, voluntarily and involuntarily. There was an expectation I would come out at the top of my class, apply to the ‘best’ universities, and study a degree highly regarded by social norms. Looking at my classmates, I thought I was the only one facing this kind of struggle. However, a research article by Dr. Morag Henderson in 2020 highlighted how the anticipations of students coming from families where no one else had attended university before were higher than in families with graduates.

Apart from the pressure to succeed, there is another factor to consider. First-generation students do not benefit from the same support system as students with graduates in their family. I could not ask my parents for guidance on university choice, academic requirements, or campus life. Dr. Henderson emphasises the difficulty in settling into university life and how this struggle might lead to higher drop-out rates. The evidence gathered by his team showed that first-generation students are at a disadvantage from both the academic and practical aspects of their life at university, causing them to end their studies before graduation.

One solution to these issues, as discussed by Dr. Henderson, would be instituting a support system at the universities themselves. Universities could give students the opportunity to communicate the lack of higher-education experience in their family, so that the institution can offer guidance “both at the application stage and once they have enrolled, so they have the best chance of fulfilling their potential”.

As a personal note, I would have benefitted from a guidance scheme in my first year, so I was glad to discover it was already being discussed. Although I am now at a point where I feel confident about having settled into my adult life, I still sometimes feel the pressure of being the first university student in my family. We need to teach our first-generation students to be more lenient towards themselves, and not to let the expectations of their families overburden them. We need to create a safety net for those who continue to struggle, so that they can achieve their potential.

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2nd Year Neuroscience student. Interested in Clinical and Computational Neuroscience. I enjoy writing articles about STEM topics.

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