By Frank Espinoza

Empowering First-Gen Students—Tips for Students & Those Who Love Them

One of the greatest memories I’ll forever cherish is the day I moved into my dorm freshman year. As the first in my family to go to college, I was excited, anxious, and wide-eyed walking onto The University of Texas at Austin.

Accompanying me on the drive, into the elevator, and inside my dorm room were my parents, abuelos (grandparents), some aunts and uncles, primos (cousins), and one sibling (the others couldn’t make it). New to the campus, I felt my nerves—and embarrassment—steadily increasing as we squeezed into the elevator (yes, even grandma). I didn’t want my peers to judge me as my large, jubilant family made our way into the halls I’d be walking for the next year. Despite these feelings, seeing my family’s smiles, awe, prayers, and celebration reminded me of the gift it was to step onto campus as a student. My accomplishment was their accomplishment, and together we spent the rest of that day relishing the moment.

Not long after move-in, however, I began to struggle. I felt out of place, homesick, and even inadequate, asking myself: Am I supposed to be here? Can I really keep up with my coursework? Who can I turn to for wisdom in navigating the complexities of college? What if I let my family down?

I was struggling with the unspoken, potentially crippling fear better known as imposter syndrome. It can affect anyone, but it particularly harasses so many ethnic minority, first-gen college students, especially those from low-income communities. “Surviving” college is a very real concern for them. And COVID only compounded that.

As we prepare for a new school year, I believe Jesus’ invitation for us is to see and care for these first-gen students’ unique experiences while also recognizing the agency and gifts they bring—to the campus, our ministries, the world, and the kingdom of God.

For First-Gen Students

In light of this invitation, I have three exhortations for first-gen students as a former first-gen student myself.

1.  Disarm the Lies with the Word of Truth

It may be tempting to see yourself as inadequate or not worthy of belonging. If this happens, remember that the God of the universe, who numbered the stars, created you in his image and likeness and calls you good (Gen 1:26–31). He marks out our appointed times and, in his sovereign plan of redemption, has led you to your campus for your good and his glory (Acts 17:26).

2.  Familiarize Yourself with Campus Resources

Chances are there’s a host of campus resources at your disposal—you just need to find them. Before you step on campus, look for a writing or tutoring center, mental health services, and your professors’ offices. Don’t be ashamed if you find yourself needing one or more of these resources. Not only were they created for you, but your tuition’s paying for it!

3.  Vocalize Your Doubts & Fears in Trusted Community

Reflecting on my early years of college, I wish I would’ve had more courage to share vulnerably about how I felt like I didn’t belong (especially as the only Latino in one of my classes freshman year). The fear of disappointing my family, who was so used to witnessing my successes, kept me from honest conversations with them. And wanting to avoid being seen as incompetent led me to hiding this struggle from peers.

But within my first week on campus as a freshman, I encountered the InterVarsity Latino Fellowship (LaFe). Who knew this would be the community where I wouldn’t just survive but actually thrive and where I’d meet my best friends? Now as I serve on staff with LaFe, I can’t stress enough the importance of surrounding yourself with an intentional (and fun) Jesus-centered community who will care for your mental, spiritual, academic, and even familial well-being.

For Those Who Love First-Gen Students

I also want to call those who aren’t first-gen students themselves but who are close with these students (like friends, mentors, or ministers) to love them like Christ.

1.  See & Affirm Their Experience

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus embodies empathy. He has compassion for the crowds who have been harassed and marginalized. He asks questions. He dignifies and grants agency to those society deemed as lowly: the diseased, differently abled, uneducated, and day laborers. Similarly, may we see our first-gen students and friends not as problems to solve but as fellow beloved children of God.

2.  Recognize Their Gifts

First-gen students are courageous. They’ve overcome countless adversities. They also carry their families and communities with them. Similarly, courageous faith, perseverance, and care for the whole community are gifts we see displayed by the disciples in the early church movement. These are the marks of a leader.

3.  Empower First-Gen Students

In Acts 4:13, we get a glimpse of leadership from the margins: “When [the elders and teachers of the law] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished, and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

Here we see two leaders with low social standing and no formal education exercising their gifts to lead a global church movement that’s still around today. Contrary to the world’s values, it was Jesus who saw their potential—and other women and men like them—and called them into leadership.

Likewise, may we have eyes to see the courage of women and men from unschooled backgrounds, uphold their inherent dignity and value as beings made in the Imago Dei (image of God), and empower them to be the leaders that God has created them to be.

May we live out these truths while declaring to our sisters and brothers who are first-generation college students:

Your voice is needed.

Your experience matters.

Your presence is not an accident (and definitely not a mistake).

As I reflect on the sweet memory of my family moving me into my dorm (including all the excitement and anxieties) and their cheers as I graduated four years later, I’m reminded of God’s sovereign plan and enduring faithfulness.

To any first-gen student: Just as it was for me, and countless others, so too has God made a way for you to be on your campus for such a time as this. Know that whatever class, college, or community group you find yourself in, you belong. May our gracious Lord lead you to himself as you begin the journey of a lifetime!

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