Confessions of a First-Generation College Student

by Ana Felce

Of all the students starting college in the fall, some will be in a unique situation as the first in their family to ever attend college. For these individuals, being a first-generation college student is the start of a new tradition. As they continue their education and experience things their family members haven’t, they pave the way for those following in their footsteps.

Azusa Pacific University senior Riley Bennett is a first-generation college student getting ready to graduate. Reflecting on her college experience—from when she first applied to her senior year—she admits it was challenging at times to get acclimated without having family members who could relate or show her the ropes. But in the end, the journey was a positive (and successful) one that taught her many things along the way.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Bennett notes that when she first started applying to colleges, she couldn’t turn to her parents for advice on how to handle the application process or find scholarships. “No one in my family had done this before, so we were just kind of trying to figure it all out—FAFSA, the application process, getting their tax information, getting information about my dad’s time in the military—as we went,” she explains.

Like other students in her situation, Bennett had to navigate much of the process on her own. “It was frustrating at some points because I knew that as much as my parents loved and supported me, I was going to have to really step up and make sure that things were getting done, and that they were getting done on time,” she says.

Bennett knew that if she wanted to go somewhere other than community college, she was going to have to help her parents help her. So they learned together and, along with the help of her favorite high school teacher, were able to complete the process. She ended up applying—and being accepted—to four different colleges.

Decisions, Decisions

Choosing which school to attend presented a new set of challenges. What are the deciding factors? Toward the end of Bennett’s senior year of high school, she went on a road trip with her mother to explore campuses in person. “We didn’t end up going on any tours, we just walked around each campus,” she recalls. After visiting different colleges, Bennett knew she preferred APU. Still, she didn’t officially commit until she attended a Choose APU event in 2014.

So, what was the final draw that made her choose APU? “I wish I could say there was a magical moment when I knew, but honestly, I just felt more at peace here,” Bennett explains. She said it was the feeling of comfort, excitement, and eagerness she experienced while visiting APU that helped her make the decision. However, despite her initial positive feelings, her journey hasn’t always been easy.

During her first two years at APU, Bennett admits that she really struggled. “I now lived four hours away from my best friends and from my family, and I had a hard time feeling that sense of belonging that everyone talks so fondly about,” she says. By the middle of her sophomore year, she felt like she was ready to quit.

A Place to Belong

Instead, Bennett persevered—and now she’s preparing to graduate. By working through the hard times, she was able to find her sense of belonging on campus. “It would have been so easy for me to leave APU, and my family would have welcomed me home with open arms,” she says. “If it were not for my internship with the APU yearbook, I wouldn’t still be enrolled at this university today.”

The yearbook internship provided Bennett with the community, purpose, and direction that she needed. In fact, it has been one the most transformative aspects of her college experience. “Working on the yearbook brought me some of my closest friends, and has allowed me to be a part of such a rich, long-standing APU tradition,” she says. And she recommends that other first-generation students seek out opportunities to get involved so they too can find places for connection and support.

Being the first in her family to attend college has taught Bennett how to be her own advocate, take initiative, and make the most of every resource she can. “The Center for Career and Calling, the Learning Enrichment Center, and the Counseling Center have all had tremendous impact on my growth,” she explains. The staff in these offices helped her navigate the ins and outs of college life, while also preparing for life after APU.

In spite of the challenges of being a first-generation student, Bennett confesses that moving to campus and making the decision to stay at APU each year—even when things got tough—has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.