How to thrive at university when you are the first in the family going to university

Charisma Hehakaya oprichter van het Eerste-Generatie Fonds

Being first in your family to go to university - a ‘first-generation student’ - is not always easy. The academic careers of students whose parents went university are usually more successful than those of first-generation students, research has shown. Thus, additional support for this group is needed.

Working as hospital cleaner aged just 13, I could never have dreamt I’d secure a role as a PhD candidate in the Imaging and Oncology division at University Medical Center Utrecht, with a post-master's degree in clinical epidemiology. I came from an unstable low-income family in the Netherlands and cared for other family members. After failing my exams, I had to retake secondary school in another town, living on my own and working to pay my bills. With several paid jobs in my final year, I had a rough start to university.

Based on my experiences of being the first in my family to go to university with social and financial challenges along the way, I would like to share a few pieces of advice for other students who might find themselves in a similar position.

Take time to get used to university 

I felt like a stranger at university because some things were not obvious and were rather new. I found it difficult to understand how university works and its ‘unwritten rules’. The way of participating in class, the way of speaking or asking questions. It is more a matter of knowing-how than knowing-that. Don’t rust it, you will learn in time. Go to social activities of the university and meet people to exchange experiences, and you might find that you are not alone.

You may also face the fact that it is difficult to explain the stress of academia to family members who have never been to university. It can help to share a course assignment or just bring family members to university.

Never compare your journey to others

The real struggles are socially driven and these arise primarily from drawing comparisons with others. I hardly recognised myself in the students around me and figuring out how university works raised many doubts. The question I found tiresome “Which university are you going to?”, when the question in my direct environment was rather “Are you going to university?”. Life is always better and more fun when things are not taken for granted.

Since I had to combine study with work, I could not spend as much time studying as other students could. This meant that I often did not get the highest grades, which I did get fed up with from time to time. The education system often feels like it separates students of different abilities. However, be aware that your strengths cannot be captured in one grade. Stop comparing yourself to others by focusing on your strengths and what you have achieved yourself. With good motivation, resilience and perseverance, you will achieve much more in the long run.

Develop techniques to prioritise and organise

Because of my circumstances, I had to learn to prioritise and to create financial security during my first three years of university. This created a lot of pressure and I therefore struggled with spending time and focusing on my studies. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to learn prioritising and it really depends on the moment itself. It is also completely normal when you feel overwhelmed or do not feel like studying.

Make sure you are informed about the course schedule, all deadlines, lectures and requirements by the first day of the course. I always attended almost all lectures and participated actively. In general, the main subjects are covered in lectures on which you will be examined and you get more fun if you study together with fellow students.

Engage and find a mentor

Talk to people who you think are doing something right and make them your mentors. There is no standard way to find a mentor. This certainly does not have to be people with a comparable background to you. This can be anyone at different levels — from peers to faculty members, and within or outside academia. You can also connect with people in companies and careers you aspire towards and ask for advice. People usually like to talk about their work.

For me, that was someone else at each stage, a teacher at secondary school, a colleague at my graduation company and now my PhD promotors. I have also often helped students by mentoring them: this has helped me to get to know myself better.

Just ask

First-gen students can be grateful for what they have and often don’t know how to ask for more. I waited too long before seeking help or advice. Asking for help can be difficult, so start with the small things. For example, I borrowed textbooks from fellow students and lecturers (win-win: you immediately come across as interested and engaged) and asked for financial advice from the study counsellor. Years later, at the end of an interview for my master's thesis with my current PhD promoter, I asked her if I could do a PhD under her supervision and it happened. 

In fact, when you ask questions, you demonstrate that you are proactive and willing to learn. You can keep puzzling, but it will get you nowhere.

Take charge and invest in yourself

Although I grew up speaking Dutch at school, my parents also spoke Indonesian at home, and I struggled expressing complex concepts in both Dutch and English. Public speaking is also not my first nature and I had trouble with stuttering. That's why I took language training together with public speaking. I also took a course in academic reading. Such courses help to develop appropriate reading, vocabulary, comprehension and critical reading skills. Some of these courses are freely available on online learning platforms. Remember: repetition brings quality and good things take time.

Your time at university should also be dedicated for personal growth. To find out what you like, but also to find out what you do not like. Dear to try and to make ‘mistakes’; these are lessons and opportunities for your development. It can be difficult to explore what interests you in a new environment without having close contacts or a network who was aware of how higher education worked. I did several jobs, internships and talked to students or alumni who were following the same study programme and asked about their work.

Remember that almost all study- and job-related choices are not made for life. Following your heart leads to what you like and what fits you. Life is malleable, but you have to do it yourself.

Trust your abilities

Because of my background, I feel that I can bridge between non-educated and educated people, between the countryside and the city, between theory and practice. Because of this, I can easily adapt in diverse social and interdisciplinary environments.

Many first-generation students have a strong work ethic, are very dedicated, good at forward-thinking and building bridges between different worlds and people. They are good at translating theoretical knowledge into non-academic terms or concrete examples, which is important to opening up science to the wider public. These are examples of very valuable skills in science, but also beyond. So, being a first-generation student does not have to be a barrier, let it be your asset and take the best of both worlds.

Charisma Hehakaya, a first-generation (PhD) student, took the initiative to establish the First-Generation Fund. She has also experienced challenges during her studies. Charisma would like to give back knowledge, experience and financial support to other and future first-generation students at Utrecht University.

Charisma completed a bachelor and master Science, Business & Innovation: Life & Health and master Business Administration at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Since September 2018, she has been working on her PhD at the Division of Imaging & Oncology at UMC Utrecht and recently completed the post-master Clinical Epidemiology at Utrecht University. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter

*This article has also been published at Times Higher Education Student