First in the Family

Advice About College from First-Generation Students—Your College Years

by Kathleen Cushman

September 2006 ♦ Paperback ♦ 124 pages ♦ISBN: 0-9762706-6-8 ♦ $9.95


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“So my mom kind of nonchalantly hands me the envelope … I was tearing it slowly and looking at it. I didn’t even read the whole thing, I just read ‘Congratulations,’ and I screamed. I called everybody in my cell phone book. By morning everybody in school knew about it. They made a huge announcement over the intercom, ’Congratulations to Eric Polk, the first Stratford student ever to get accepted to Wake Forest University.’ What! So I hold that title. And I basically didn’t go to any class that day, they’re like, ‘Honey, just sit down!’”
–Erik Polk, Stratford High School ’04 (Nashville, TN), Wake Forest University ‘08

So you've been accepted to college, the first in your family to go! This crucial companion volume to the popular First in the Family: Your High School Years will help get you oriented. In the words of the same college students who gave their advice earlier, this next-step guidebook tells students how to persist in college—an even bigger challenge for those who are blazing new trails. Encouraging and practical, it offers the peer counsel and well-organized checklists that has made the first volume a hot property in guidance offices and college access programs nationwide.

Those first months on campus, especially where white students of privilege dominate, can be daunting. Milenny Then grew up in a Latino neighborhood of New York City. She remembers vividly her first months at Wheaton, a small college in suburban Massachusetts. “It was really hard for me at first. I never cried because I was homesick in college—the only reason I cried was because I felt dumb. One night I called my cousin and I was like, ‘I feel so stupid, I shouldn’t be here.’”

However, the challenges can be invigorating, too. “Some teachers require you to go find readings in scholarly journals, and I had never heard of scholarly journals coming out of high school,” explains Raja Fatah, who grew up in a Palestinian neighborhood in Cleveland and now attends Kent State College. “You find articles on things I never even knew existed, everything from death penalty issues, discrimination laws, all types of things. It really expands your horizons. I challenge myself—I take upper division classes when I don’t even have to, just to get a higher learning experience.”

Whether they attend a community college or an elite university, the students whose stories and advice fill both volumes of First in the Family meet the same obstacles along the way: stereotypes and low expectations, limited information and opportunities, and the social and emotional trials of breaking new ground.

The first volume (“Your High School Years”) focuses on nailing down the factors that keep kids college-bound from ninth-grade on. What makes all the difference, these students’ testimonies show, is finding just one person who takes their hopes seriously and lends a hand.

In First in the Family—Your College Years, the same students speak of culture shock, remediation woes, and finding their way in the new freedoms of college studies. Here the secret also involves forging relationships—this time, with the professors who will open the doors to new fields of learning and accomplishment.

The undergraduates who contributed to First in the Family are listed below. (These are the colleges they were attending at the time they were interviewed.)

First in the Family
Your College Years


You’re on Your Way
College is a journey of discovery

Facing the Hurdles
College can be a culture shock

It’s Your Time
Take charge of your academic choices

Enlarging Your Circle
Make relationships that help you do well

The Hours of Your Day
How to manage your time and resources

Reading, Writing, and Aiming High
Your critical college skills can only get better

Good Times and Hard Times
College is a social and emotional experience

Who Are You Now?
You develop a new identity while at college

Reaching Back Home
Will your family and friends change, too?

Pass It Forward
You can help those who follow you

Useful Resources

At community colleges:

  • Hazel Janssen, a white student from Denver, completing high school while enrolled at Denver Community College
  • Jackie Comminello, a Mexican-American student at Denver Community College
  • Debra Graves, a sixth-grade dropout and mother of four who at 26 re-enrolled at Denver Community College
  • Aileen Rosario, a Dominican-American student at Passaic County (NJ) Community College
  • Naixing Lei, a Chinese immigrant student at City College of San Francisco

At state or mid-level colleges and universities:

  • Mike Morris, an African-American from Mississippi on a football scholarship at Brigham Young University in Utah
  • Josh Cryer, an African-American from Indiana, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, in Indiana
  • John Berry, a white rural student attending college after six years in the work force, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne
  • Raja Fatah, a Palestinian student from inner-city Cleveland, at Kent State University in Ohio
  • Maly Fung, a New York City immigrant from China and Venezuela, on a Posse Foundation scholarship at Lafayette College in rural Pennsylvania
  • Karen Powless, a Native-American student who attends Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City, where she is a leader in the Native-American Students Association
  • Stephanie Serda, a third-generation Mexican-American attending Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

At highly selective colleges and universities:

  • Eric Polk, an African-American student from East Nashville (TN) attending Wake Forest University in North Carolina
  • Niema Jordan, an African-American student from Oakland (CA) attending Northwestern University in Chicago
  • Milenny Then, a Dominican student from New York City who left home to attend Wheaton College in suburban Massachusetts
  • Stephen Torres, a Mexican-American student attending the University of Texas in Austin
  • Rosa Fernandez, a Dominican immigrant student attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts



“First in the Family is PERFECT for our student population! I couldn’t imagine anything more useful or inspiring or informative.”
–   Lynne Marie Bruce,
Golden Gate HS

“This book is a bible for college preparatory services! There is really nothing else like this out there--there are tons of reports, but nothing else with faces, names, and the emotional resonance of First in the Family.”
– Emily Steinberg,
Admission Control


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View audio-slideshows on:

Academic Culture Shock
Peer Support
Family Responsibilities
Balancing Work with School
Learning Communities
Becoming a Scholar