Expectation to exploration: being a first generation student

Before Angel Fuentes knew what she wanted to study, or even whether college was the right path for her, she felt the pressure of being a first-generation college student.

“College was something I was always supposed to do,” says Angel, a third-year psychology  student from Crookston, Minn. “My family didn’t know much about college. They just knew it would get you a better job.”

The expectation weighed heavily on Angel in high school. She didn’t want to disappoint her family, but pursuing higher education felt like something she was only doing for them. What if she didn’t like it? What if she let them down? It created a feeling of resentment.

Then Angel’s high school art teacher shared some of his college experiences and helped her realize it was more than getting from point A to point B. She started to understand the opportunities that attending university could provide her – life experiences, exploration and community.

“It can be for me, not just for my family,” she says.

First-generation students face unique challenges and barriers to higher education – something that is recognized each Nov. 8 during First-Generation College Student Day. The event, held on the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965, celebrates the success and presence of first-generation college students, faculty and staff on campuses across the country.

Nearly 40 percent of MSUM’s Fall 2022 undergraduate students are first-generation students, as well as 32 percent of graduate students.

Angel was surprised and heartened to learn that many students shared her status.

“Somebody else knows the pain,” she says.

Navigating university as a first-generation student is stressful and physically draining, Angel says. She’s often not sure what steps to take, and her immediate family couldn’t answer her questions or point her in the right direction. Financial aid forms were especially challenging at first.

When she goes back home, Angel says it can feel like she’s being put on a pedestal – paraded around as “the one” who’s going to college.

Angel says the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, where she works as a student associate, has offered support, helping her navigate university life and find ways to support herself financially, as well as encouraging her to stay on the path.

“I feel more engaged through them,” she says.

Her uncle, MSUM Director of Diversity & Inclusion Jered Pigeon, has also helped to guide her.

Now Angel’s goal is to attend graduate school and earn a doctorate in psychology. This next level of higher education will be another first for her family.

Angel hopes she can serve as an example for her younger siblings and cousins. She can be the person she didn’t have – someone to ask questions and offer direction.

She also wants other first-generation students at MSUM to know there is a space for them here.

“It’s very scary and very stressful. It’s definitely an exciting (journey) and one we can be proud of. It’s a struggle but we can make it  in the end,” she says.

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