In honor of today's National First-Generation College Celebration, we asked students to share their stories about what it means to be the first in their families to go to college. Here is what they had to say.
The Motivation to Pursue a Degree
Natalia Murillo Salazar
School of Criminal Justice
Class of 2023
As a first–generation college student who was raised by a single mom in a lower-class household, each stage of life produced new obstacles. When high school graduation came, I knew college was not an option, and instead I would need to find a job to step in financially at home. Eventually, I would spend six years working full time as a receptionist, and I got so comfortable making money that my desire to go to college began to grow dim.
My mom has always wanted the best for me, and one of the many things she wanted was that I obtain a college degree. She was the one to push me out of my comfort zone, and even though she knew nothing about college applications, she motivated me every step of the way. I finally received my notification of acceptance and I was so excited, but I had so many questions and no one to turn to for help. Sure, my family was happy for me and gave me their unconditional support, but neither of my parents nor brothers had walked down this path. But I was proactive in seeking advice and guidance at school, and even when stress bubbled up inside of me, I never showed the physical effects.
Becoming a first-generation college student adds some pressure to be the “last hope” for your family. But the pressure has only taught me how strong I can be. I have learned how to be independent, and yes, I still do need motivation and support, but I have matured so much during this process. I have continued to work full time my entire college career and my family sees the effort I make every day to fulfill my responsibilities both at work and school. Being a college student has not only been an opportunity for me, but also for my family and I will forever be grateful for their unconditional support.
A Special Place for First-Generation Students
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Class of 2023
Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Hometown: West New York
As a first-generation Latino college student of Colombian heritage, Rutgers has provided me with a rigorous learning environment and has given me the opportunity to find my own community. Rutgers provides their first-generation students with a plethora of programs that help them seek the tools they need to succeed. Coming to such a large school is daunting at first, but it primes you to be the driver of your own education and I have learned how to be a better self-advocate because of my time at Rutgers.
Having a strong support system is something that I found at Rutgers. As a college freshman, I enrolled in a cooperative living community, known as Helyar House. This small college dorm perched right next to the scenic farms on Cook campus has been my home for the last four years. Helyar House is truly one of a kind; built in 1968, this dorm serves first-generation, low-income students and provides them with a place they can truly call home. Helyar fosters community involvement, development of interpersonal skills and helps you blossom into a responsible, independent college student. My time at this house has allowed me to pick my chosen family, a necessity as a first-generation student.
The McNair Scholars program has provided me with a solid foundation towards my attainment of a doctoral degree in Molecular Biology. This program has empowered me not only academically, but also holistically as a person. By providing me with first-hand experience in a research setting, I was able to thrive in a new environment with all the tools that I may not have had otherwise. Ensuring successful completion of my own independent research project, discussing my research at conferences and networking with other McNair Scholars has helped me grow as a scholar. Diversifying our spaces with people of different backgrounds is essential and Rutgers has cultivated an opportunity-filled environment for first-generation students to succeed.
Beating the Odds
School of Nursing-Camden
Class of 2025
In the United States, 26.6 percent of Latinas receive a college degree, 10 percent of Camden residents graduate college with a bachelor’s degree or higher and 16 percent of first generation students are less likely to graduate than non-first-generation students. Which statically puts me at less than a 17 percent chance to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. However, I’ve never let these odds stop me from accomplishing my goals.
With no college experience in my family, going through the college process was stressful. However, Rutgers-Camden gave me a large amount of support. Not only am I striving to receive my bachelor of science degree in nursing, but I hope to pursue a doctoral degree. Being a first-generation student has pushed me harder to accomplish my goals. As well, it means I am walking proof of defying the odds. Aside from that, I am also honored to be a role model and inspiration for other first-generation students and my younger sisters. I can be an advocate for them and guide them through the college process. Even with the low percentages, I was never discouraged from striving for my dreams, and I want everyone to have that mindset. Throughout the years, I have put in an endless amount of work. Sleepless nights, hours of studying and hard work has gotten me to this point, where I can continue to reach for the stars.
Being a first-generation student is something that my parents, who were born in Puerto Rico, are grateful for. They love that I have taken advantage of the opportunity to attend college. They are proud to see what I have achieved and are eager to see what the future holds for me. Being my biggest supporters, they know that my hard work will soon pay off into success. As mentioned, I am excited to experience the day my sisters can strive for their goals.
I strongly hope that every first-generation student beats the odds. I want them to feel supported and realize that any dream is possible. Rutgers-Camden provides the support I need as a first-generation student. Not only can I be a “familiar face” around campus, but one for first-generation students. Accessing resources can be difficult, but with the support of faculty, peers and family, I have been able to excel in college. That 17 percent continues to push me to beat the odds and one day graduate with multiple degrees.
The Courage to Dream Big
School of Environmental Biological Sciences
Class of 2023
Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Hometown: Bayonne, NJ
Being a first-gen student requires a large amount of courage to dream big, challenge myself and take risks. It is a big part of my identity here at Rutgers, and I carry it throughout my experiences. I work hard for myself, my family and younger first-generation students to serve as a role model for the community, because our strong mentors, teachers and community leaders encourage us to pursue college.
Being a first-generation student goes beyond intelligence and bravery; it is a challenge we take upon ourselves every day. It is a daily reminder of the people (family, friends, mentors) who have helped us reach our current achievements and that we will continue to persevere to achieve our dreams. I aim to represent students who do not have the resources or connections in higher education. I remember how much struggle my friends and I faced getting through college without any guide to show us our path. We didn’t have family or friends who have been in the situations we have been in. However, we found our communities here at Rutgers (TRIO, McNair, ODASIS), and we met older students with similar backgrounds who helped us with our college careers. It is our time to pick up the torch and lead the next generation of students.
It is imperative to have support systems and initiatives to help first-generation students navigate college. First-generation students need to know they can do this and are not alone. Many initiatives here at Rutgers University assist students as they pursue their undergraduate success.
My family has seen all the work I’ve done and is proud of how far I’ve come. They see that by pursuing higher education, I am bringing a voice to our community and representing us through every action. Coming from Egypt, my parents wanted to make sure that we were provided the best available. My parents have sacrificed so much for my siblings and me; they know this is just the beginning of my success. Their sacrifices and journey really push me to keep going forward. I am thrilled and proud to say that my brothers have followed in my footsteps and are achieving success. They will continue to find their paths and become role models for the community as they grow.
Creating Her Own Path
Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick
Class of 2023
Being a first-generation student means sacrificing, working overtime and creating a path. My parents lacked a high school education but always urged my older brothers and me to get one and to “not be like them.” For this reason, I always took my studies very seriously at a young age – I believed having an education was key. Having this mindset is why I ended up going to college. My siblings and I all took different routes. One became a mechanic, the other went to the Navy and I went to college. I had begun my journey at Mercer County Community College because of financial reasons. I joined the Honors Club, was on the Dean’s List multiple times and even coordinated two club events. I graduated with Honors and an Associate in Business Administration, but that was only the first step.
Transferring to the Rutgers Business School was intimidating, but I knew I belonged. On top of coursework and clubs, I have a part-time job delivering pizza, where I do homework when I am not busy. I have missed many school events and games due to my schedule, but I always look at the bright side and remember what my parents would tell me as a kid. I always give it my all, and throughout my college journey, there were always students who were five steps ahead of me, despite doing less work.
Knowing that some students already have a path premade for them is bittersweet. However, I think creating that path will come with joy and satisfaction they may not ever receive. I am a proud Latina of Mexican-Guatemalan descent who grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. As a Junior, I already have a job lined up when I graduate, at a Fortune 500 company. With the help of my mentors, Rutgers University and my family's support, I have come this far, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.