For First-Gen College Students

A Look into a First-Generation College Student’s Story & Why Finding Your Best-Fit College Late is not the End of the World

Two weeks after I had walked across the stage to receive my undergraduate diploma in 2006, I remember my mother sitting next to me on the couch in my parent’s home that I had just moved back into before starting my first real job after college. She put her hand on my leg to distract me from the TV screen I had been watching, and said with tears in her eyes, rather out of the blue:

“You graduating from college… that was a really big deal wasn’t it? We should have made a bigger deal about it, right?”

My graduation had been attended by my mom, dad and my younger sister, and I had just been happy that my father had been coerced into leaving his comfort zone, “the valley,” to make the two and a half hour drive to Deep South Alabama for the occasion. As a first-generation college student, I had long become accustomed to their lack of excitement or even discomfort on all things related to my quest into academia. My mother had spent the summer before my first year of college joking that I was “not her child,” because I was far too brave to “head out into the world like that.” My grandmother reminded me none too often that I could work at the local McDonald’s or Walmart, and she would still love me. Their messages had all been the same: “Don’t go. Don’t leave us. Why do you want to be different? This is where you belong.”

Braids, mopeds, dirt roads and open fields, childhood in a farming family was full of adventures – no helmets allowed.

My maternal grandmother had dropped out of high school at 17 to marry my grandfather, who worked in a tire factory for 40 years. She became a housewife, babysitting and raising other people’s children long after her own were grown and gone. As a kid, I called my grandparents “rich,” never realizing until much later in life that they were barely middle-class. My dad was the youngest of nine from a crop farming family, and my mom was a data-base processor at an automotive parts warehouse. They met at a high school football game, and he stole her heart the next day when he pulled up to my grandparent’s house on his dirt bike – all calloused hands from his job as a lumberjack, and his cap turned carelessly backwards – to ask her on a date. We lived in a single-wide trailer for most of my life, while my mom brought home the only consistent paycheck until I turned 16 and got my first part-time job.

 I did not blame them or hold resentment toward them for their feelings of uncertainty – they had given of themselves all that they were capable of giving to me within their limited experiences of the greater world. I love them just the way they are; in fact, I love them because of who they are.

But I wanted more. I wanted to see more, experience more – to be more.

But my challenges as a first-generation college student followed me beyond the boundaries of home.

From looking at, applying to and committing to the first college that showed me interest because I didn’t know the benefits of “shopping around,” to having to tell my private college classmates I had never owned a passport and saw the beach for the first time in my life at 18 years old. From failing my freshman college Calculus class because I didn’t think it was acceptable to ask for a tutor in college, to having an English professor with a Ph.D. accuse me of plagiarizing a paper because I didn’t “talk like I write.”

Graduation day 2006 with family

U.S. News & World Report this year found that 33 percent of enrolled students at universities in 2011-2012 were first-generation college students. Some of the top challenges faced by first-generation college students can include:

  • Lack of knowledge of the college experience, or rather, no family to guide them
  • A lack of understanding about the cost of attending college from a social life perspective
  • Lack of support from home or even feeling guilty about leaving home
  • And, of course, fitting in on a college campus

I would say I was luckier than most. I had the fortitude to ask questions along the way. I had one parent who wanted me to “have everything I wanted out of life,” and so I made it through college on a combination of Student and Parent Plus loans, scholarships and the Pell Grant.  I attended a small liberal arts college with a close-knit community that made it easy to find the resources I needed. I made the right mentors in professors and internship supervisors who encouraged and guided me along the way.

But getting there was the first step, and I got there late. I was accepted in the late spring, succinctly missing all of my college’s “preview” or scholarship testing days, and therefore, eliminating my chance of earning more scholarship money (to make matters worse, I actually did not even realize the importance of these preview days!). I don’t even recall engaging with my future classmates until our orientation in late June, and I had so little time to find a roommate among them that one was chosen for me that fall.

If you’re late to the game, don’t fret just yet: Many colleges have later or rolling application deadlines and some colleges even make exceptions for late applicants if you but reach out to them. At Agnes Scott College, our regular admission application deadline is March 15.

If you are a first-generation college student, and you’re still contemplating whether or not you should apply to Agnes Scott, consider these on-campus resources that will benefit you:

  • As part of our SUMMIT curriculum, you’ll have a dedicated Board of Advisors who will offer guidance throughout your four years of college. One of these advisors is a peer advisor, or rather a current Scottie living and thriving at Agnes Scott.

  • PathMakers is an interdepartmental support system available for first-generation Scotties on campus, founded by a current Scottie. PathMakers offers mentor/mentee partnerships, bi-weekly check-ins, financial aid literacy sessions and much more to support this important campus population from admission all the way to graduation. Connect with PathMakers on Instagram @asc_pathmakers.

  • In 2018, 15 percent of Scotties were first-generation college students (as defined by “neither parent having any college experience”). More than 40 percent of the student population were Pell eligible, prompting U.S. News & World Report to name the college No. 1 among national liberal arts colleges that promote social mobility in the 2019 Best Colleges rankings.

In closing, your college experience will be unique to you and to your own circumstances, whether you are first-generation or not. And one day, you may look back on your college journey – much as I did that day in 2006 when I wiped the tears from my mom’s eyes, gave her a hug and told her that graduation from college was important, but that her strength and kindness was all I had ever needed – and realize that you are successful, not despite the challenges you’ve faced in your life, but because of them.


Kati Burns Mallows is the Director of Enrollment Marketing in the Office of Admission at Agnes Scott College. When she’s not working (which is constant), she’s still trying to get accustomed to the volatile Georgia weather while simultaneously fighting to keep her husband’s 85-pound house dog from eating the remaining furniture.

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