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‘It was a Nightmare’: First-Generation Students Detail on the Multi-Layered Misery that is Freshman Year of College


OCT 31, 2021

An experience that serves as a generational milestone for many is uncharted territory for first-generation students, making for a unique four years.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The college experience is both a staple and cliché of American life. Moving away from home and being independent for the first time puts all first-year students in entirely new lives. But for or first-generation students, the transition can present mental health concerns.

Nicole Vasquez started her freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She had grown up only 20 minutes from campus, and always planned to attend the school. She could live at home and maintain Hispanic cultural traditions with her family.

But she soon realized her collegiate desires were more expansive than she had previously thought. Vasquez wanted more challenging courses, and began to think living at home was more for her family’s sake than her own. 

“I had a really bad mental breakdown, and I got really upset because I was having to put both family and my future in my hands,” said Vasquez. “I just didn’t know which way to go and if I was holding myself back because of my family.” This ultimately led her to transfer.

Lithu Muralee, a 2020 graduate of Columbia University, faced similar cultural concerns. She emigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka in 2009, with a culture that placed high value on family life. She decided to attend Columbia over her initial top choice, Cornell University, because it was closer to home.

More overwhelming to Muralee than geographical distance, was the gap she felt between herself and students who were not first-generation. 

“It’s like having imposter syndrome times two,” said Muralee. “It’s not just the general, ‘am I good enough for this?’ but it’s also like ‘I have to be good enough for this because you’re the first person to go to college and can’t disappoint your family." 

Same Country, Different Culture

For Liliana Gregg, a 2021 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she was not only the first in her family to attend college, but also the first to graduate high school. On campus, she sought out first-gen groups like the Lookout Scholars Program, where she was surrounded by students who understood her unique position.

Gregg, who is from Black Mountain, N.C., faced the typical hardships of first-year students: having to make new friends, live in a new place and find yourself outside of your family.

“I went to a super small high school… like I knew everyone in my graduating class,” said Gregg. “And coming to UNC, where there’s thousands of students on campus … it’s overwhelming because it’s making you go outside of your comfort zone from what you were used to your whole life.”

All of this made for an isolating first year. 

For Muralee, the common challenges that are familiar to so many were foreign to her. 

“It’s hard to figure out what is a ‘normal struggle’ everyone is going through versus a ‘you’ struggle, because you don’t have anyone to guide you through college,” said Muralee. “No one in your family has done it.” 

The Big Picture

Further, for some first-generation students there’s an additional load of pursuing a certain field of study. According to a 2016 study in The Developing Economist, first-generation students are more likely to be “risk averse” in selecting a major, in comparison to non-first-gen classmates. This held true for Muralee, as she majored in mechanical engineering: a line of work that suited her interests and held the potential for financial stability. 

“There’s a pressure to do a job that would make you better off in life, financially,” said Muralee. “Most people with family members who haven’t been to college, especially in America, aren’t from a wealthy family. So, there’s this layer of ‘I have to do well, because if I don’t, all of this was for nothing.’”


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