Picking a school as a first-generation college student

May 16, 2022

You’re the first in your family to go to college. Congratulations! I’m a first-generation college grad. But all the excitement you’re feeling probably comes with some stress and anxiety.

How do you start looking for a college when you don’t have the resources or advice from family members to fall back on? What’s all this talk about “fit”? Where do you even begin?

If you’re worried about applying, cost and 100 other things, don’t let those worries distract or deter you from picking the right experience. 

Here’s what to consider as you start your college search:

Scholarships and financial aid

I know I just said not to let cost distract you, but it is still something you must consider. You don’t want to graduate with a lifetime of student loan debt, so make sure it’s within your budget. I did not have a clue as to how much it would cost to attend college, and I definitely did not know what I could afford. Don’t be afraid to ask about scholarships and other financial aid.

Augustana offers a range of scholarships for all kinds of students. Some schools (including Augustana) even offer scholarships specifically for first-generation students!

Distance from home

I started my college search very broadly, then narrowed it down to where I wanted to land (geographically). For some students, it’s important to be able to easily go back home fairly often. Be honest with yourself about how often you’ll need/want to go home before choosing a school on the other side of the country. (Here’s my tip: once you arrive, try to stay on campus for at least one month before visiting home.) 

Reach out to people who want to help

There’s no way I would have made it to Augustana without the help of the admissions and financial aid teams. I never quite understood the process of applying, the FAFSA and scholarships until they took the time to walk me through it. 

It was never in an embarrassing way either. They simply outlined my next steps and were always there to answer questions.

When I arrived as a student, I found new mentors and others to guide me through my classes and other opportunities. First-gen students now can access a variety of programs at Augustana specifically designed for them, like TRIO

Campus culture

Knowing how current students spend their time on and off campus can help you decide if you’ll fit in. Check out each school’s clubs and groups and the campus activities calendar. And don’t forget to follow the college on social media.

But the best way to get a feel for campus culture is to visit campus and talk to students. I hope you have the opportunity to visit several colleges. Look for scholarship/reimbursement incentives to help make it happen. 

Course load and expectations

If you plan to work while in college, knowing the school’s expectations for time spent on assignments outside of class is important. Admissions counselors can give you an idea of how many students have jobs, how many hours they work, and how much time you should expect to spend on schoolwork after hours. 

Campus jobs can play a major role in your experience. Initially I thought it was just a way to make extra money, but my campus job as an admissions ambassador ended up being one of my favorite activities. 

If you’re interested in more first-gen student journeys at Augustana, read about these recent graduates:

Morgan Anderson ‘20
Diangelo Gonzalez ‘21
Nadia Castillo ‘21

Choosing a college can be stressful for anyone, but especially if you’re a first-gen student. The key is to ask questions. And always wear the title like a badge of honor. You are capable of every. single. thing. you hope to achieve in life.