Tips for Supporting Your First-Generation College Student

As the Thanksgiving break approaches, you may be looking forward to spending some quality time with your Michigan student, but if your student is the first person in your family to attend college, you may also be wondering what it will be like to have your college student back at home. How much have they changed since you last saw them? What will you talk about? Will they still be the same person you sent to Ann Arbor in September? Or perhaps, your student is unable to come home for the holiday. How will you stay connected across the miles?

Often times, families of first-generation college students struggle to understand what might be going on in their college students’ lives. If you didn’t have a college experience yourself, the environment at the University of Michigan might seem like another planet, and this may make it challenging to find a way to connect with your student.

Here are a few tips to help you show support for your Wolverine during the Thanksgiving and Winter breaks – whether you’re talking in person or from afar:  

Tip #1: Eliminate the guilt.
Many first-generation students feel guilty about having left their family. As a family member, it’s important to know, and to remind your student of, the value of a college education. In the long run, a college degree will be much more valuable to the whole family than having the student stay at home with the family.

Tip #2: Expect change:
Students experience a lot of growth during their time at Michigan. College and the experiences associated with it can effect changes in social, vocational, and personal choices. It’s inevitable, and it can be inspiring. It can also be a pain in the neck. Your student may be having trouble figuring out where they belong and may feel they don’t quite fit in as much at home anymore. Although the process may be challenging and confusing, it’s important to support their changes and to give them understanding.

Tip #3: Demonstrate confidence that they will be successful.
If you have confidence in them, they will have more confidence in themselves. The University of Michigan believes that they will be successful here, and your student should believe that as well. Yes, it will be challenging, but your student has the ability to meet that challenge. It’s important to remember that intelligence and abilities are not fixed in stone; failing one test or even an entire class does not determine future success. Each challenge at Michigan is an opportunity for your student to grow.

Tip #4: Acknowledge that college is hard. Really hard.
Don’t believe the movies you see. College isn’t just one big party. College students experience an enormous amount of pressure and anxiety. Anything you can do to reduce or eliminate pressure from the family can help your student stay on track and keep focused. For example, in December families often plan gatherings and family commitment around holidays. However on campus, December represents due dates for end-of-term papers and final exams. Encouraging your student to focus on studying instead of expecting them to be at the family events can be a great way to show your support and understanding of their college demands.

Tip #5: Encourage your student to find a mentor on campus.
Building relationships is part of the college experience, and a mentor can often help your student navigate the complexities of the college environment. How does a student find a mentor? Encourage them to start by talking to people they are comfortable with – it could be another student like a Resident Advisor in the residence hall, or a staff member from the job that they work at, or even a professor or graduate student instructor. Your student can also start by utilizing the campus resources for first-generation students, including the First Generation Student Gateway, the First Generation Student Website or the First Generation Student Organization.

Tip #6: Understand the value of getting involved outside of the classroom.
Because college is so hard, it is tempting to expect your student to spend all of their time studying. However, a college education is more than just academics. A college education also takes place in the environment outside of the classroom. Students who get involved on campus are more likely to feel a sense of belonging in their campus environment, and this sense of belonging is a crucial piece in graduating on time.

Tip #7: Remind them that you’re proud of them.
Among the many pressures in college is the pressure of living up to their family’s expectations. Remember to tell them that you support them and their decision to get a college education. Your support, encouragement and love are essential components for first-generation students to be successful in achieving their educational goals.

And a last bit of advice for those of you that will not be spending Thanksgiving with your student, be sure to send a care package! Food from home is welcome at any time of the year, but especially on holidays.


To help Student Life continue making a difference in students' lives, please consider making a gift.