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There’s not just one way to be successful in college.

Rather there are myriad ways students can make the most of undergraduate study based on their majors, living situations, strengths, prior experiences, use of resources, and campus involvement. Each of these factors contributes to students’ experiences of progress and success, but each is experienced differently—perhaps even amplified—for students who are the first in their family to attend college.

For first-generation students who have long been underserved in higher education, generative cultivation of these factors can lead to strengthened belonging, knowledge-gap support, and added vocational direction, making them powerful opportunities for connection and meaningful support. Yet there isn’t a simple roadmap to these benefits. Instead, students must navigate each challenge as it comes and learn as they go.

Parents can be key partners in helping students engage each of these parts of college, even if you didn’t complete a degree yourself. Being an effective partner is a matter of cultivating your own expectations for their college life, even as your student does the same.

Thus, here are seven tips for first-gen students from my lens as a student success coach. Use these as topics of conversation both before and during your student’s transition to college.

  1. Asking for help is strategic. Students often hesitate to ask for help. They don’t want to reveal they have any kind of lack (i.e. understanding, knowledge, ability), even if that lack is completely reasonable—like not knowing where a classroom is in a building they’ve never visited. Whether something small like this or needing help in a difficult class or job interview, their resistance to asking for assistance can create an unnecessary barrier between them and success. Help them consider that not-knowing is a temporary state, not their identity.
  2. Classes can be emotional; anticipate your response. Students who encounter high-stakes classes or especially difficult classes can experience outsized academic stress. Yet the stress they feel is not isolated to exams or papers. Students can feel just as much stress about their long-term goals and plans as they do about their assignments in the class. Help your student identify the kinds of stress they’re feeling, and make a plan for the class.
  3. Roommate conflict will happen. When it does, encourage your student to communicate and resolve the issue when possible. If that’s not possible, your student can reach out to their resident assistants or resident directors for advice about how to proceed. Help them see this as an opportunity to practice conflict resolution, which is a skill connected to wellbeing in the workplace even after college.
  4. Failure can fuel success. All students experience failure at some point in their undergrad. Students can make the most of these missteps if they are willing to reflect on what went wrong and reverse-engineer a different way to approach the situation next time. Help your student dissect the cause of the outcome, look for a different approach, and encourage them to proceed with a different tactic.
  5. Mentors are there if you look for them. In addition to the mentors available to students in formal support programs, many staff and faculty are interested in supporting students toward their end goals. Encourage your student to have their eyes open to individuals they might be interested in learning more from.
  6. Pivoting can be progress. Discerning that a major or minor isn’t the best fit—or isn’t what they expected—is important learning early in your student’s college career. Though not all students will change their academic goals, doing so can represent progress in their discernment of a long-term path. Get curious with your student if they’re interested in making a change to their major or minor, and encourage them to speak with an academic advisor before making a final decision.
  7. Ask the experts about supplemental scholarships. Sometimes faculty and staff in particular academic departments will be aware of the supplemental scholarships available for students studying a particular topic or for contributing to related areas of research. Encourage your student to visit with staff in the department to find out who they can speak to regarding any major-specific scholarship opportunities.


Dr. Jennifer Tharp is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education. Dr. Tharp teaches at the graduate level and consults nationally in the area of student success.