Thrive on Campus//

An Open Letter to First-Generation College Students on How to Handle the Stress

Learn to promote your passions and well-being while giving back to others.

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Going to college comes with many “firsts” — your first (difficult) midterm exam, your first time breaking free from your high school self, and, for some, your first time being away from home for an extended period of time. For me and my family, the idea of college itself was a first. Having now graduated, I am the first person in my immediate family to receive a college degree. Being a first-generation student was certainly a rewarding experience, but it was in no way easy. Without a parent or sibling to shed light on uncertainties, I sometimes felt as though I was embarking on an unknown path in the dark.

After four years of challenges as well as achievements, I look back at my first-gen experience fondly. I grew both personally and professionally, and learned many things I’d like to pass on to other students who might be the first in their families to set foot on campus.

Seek out mentors who lead by example

One of the most significant decisions I made during my four years as a college student was to take advantage of mentorship opportunities. As a first-gen student, my expectations of college life mainly stemmed from TV shows and articles on the internet — I truly did not have an accurate depiction of the college experience, and quickly learned that I needed sources of guidance and support. From professors in my academic department and older students in my major, to programs that specifically focused on developing mentor relationships, I was able to identify people across campus who were willing to teach me about their experiences. Leaning on these individuals and programs for advice and a support system taught me about perseverance, helped me learn new skills, and ultimately showed me how I could become a mentor myself.

Remember, it’s OK not to do it all

As a high school student, I bought into the idea of hustle culture and had no intention of stopping once I became a college student. During my first week of classes, I signed up for far more clubs and extracurricular activities than my class schedule — and my well-being — could handle. It didn’t take long to realize that I had spread myself too thin, and would end up sacrificing much-needed study time, downtime, and time with friends if I was involved in too many things. I decided to relentlessly prioritize, and devote my time and energy to the things that mattered most to me: activities that would further my career and interests, clubs that allowed me to give back to the community, and most importantly, my own mental and physical health. I won’t lie — I initially experienced a great amount of guilt when I went through this process. I questioned if I was doing enough, and compared myself to other students’ level of involvement. Little did I know that prioritizing my time and well-being was the best decision I could have made; I not only identified my strengths and greatest passions, but also avoided the burnout that is all too common amongst college students.

Keep an open mind, even when it’s hard

As a first-gen student, many facets of college life feel unfamiliar and sometimes, and that can make you feel as though you are on the outside looking in. For me, Greek life was very unfamiliar. Without much exposure to Greek organizations, I had many preconceived notions about what it meant to be in a sorority or fraternity. It wasn’t until I became more open-minded and decided to give the recruitment process a try that I realized how different —  and fulfilling — joining a Greek organization could be. My involvement in a Greek organization defied my personal expectations, and put an end to the stereotypes that initially pulled me away from that community. It introduced me to individuals whom I never would have met, and gave me opportunities to take on leadership roles and give back to the local community in tangible ways. I never would have had such deeply meaningful experiences, or made such close friendships, if I did not keep an open mind and say yes to the unknown.

Give back to others

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I would give to fellow first-generation students is to use your experiences and newfound knowledge to help others in whatever capacity you choose. For me, this meant giving advice to prospective students, serving as a mentor to new members of the Greek community, and providing support for my younger brother, who made the decision to attend college as well. I learned that the uncertainties of your first-gen experience can be used for good, and can help those who are starting their journeys.

College is a highly personal experience, but that doesn’t mean it is one you have to learn about alone. It is important, especially as a first-gen student, to identify sources of support, and find ways to get involved that promote both your passions and well-being. By no means will your journey be an easy one, but with a positive, open mindset and a desire to give back, it will be gratifying.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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