Home Blog The Journey of a First-Generation Graduate Student

A First-Generation Graduate Student's Journey

November 20, 2022
Close up of graduation cap during commencement success for graduates of the university.

Fabio Peña is a member of the 2023 cohort of online MBA students at Seattle University Albers School of Business and Economics. A first-generation Latinx graduate student, he is also a socially-conscious entrepreneur who blended his background as the son of migrant farm workers and his business education to support other first-gen college students. Read more about his journey and advice for first-generation students here.

Peña is the co-founder and CEO of Peña & Co., a management consulting firm that operates an app-based mentorship program for first-generation college students. Peña & Co.’s FirstHub program has a presence on over 100 U.S. college campuses.

Peña has said the service aims to give first-gen college students individualized support. “We broker mentor matches that will initiate genuine and authentic relationships in order to light the path to success. It’s the equivalent of Match.com but for first-gens, minus the dating aspect.”1

Learn more about Fabio in this short video. You can also find FirstHub on Instagram.

First-Generation Graduate Student Data

The path to graduate school for first-generation students is a steep one, as the statistics show. About 40% of students entering college are the first in their families to attend, and 86% of them graduate, although it often takes more than the traditional four years.2

But only 23% of first-gen students who get their bachelor’s go to graduate school. That brings the estimated number of first-generation graduate students down to about eight percent, or approximately 245,000 students.3, 4

More First-Generation College Students Attend Part-Time

First-generation college students tend to be older than their classmates. They often have to support themselves, and many also have to support their families. Nearly half (48%) of first-gen students attend classes part-time, and sixty-six percent work while attending college. Thirty percent of them are also supporting dependents.

Financial pressures make it more difficult for first-gen students to complete their education and can keep them from participating in activities like internships and networking events that are important to their future careers. There can also be cultural factors that contribute to first-generation student struggles. 5, 6, 7

First-Generation Students Are Diverse

First-generation students are ethnically diverse. Latino (33%) and white (37%) students constitute about three-quarters of the first-gen student population. Another 19% are African-American students, and 8% are Asian-American.5

There are, however, similarities among their diverse experiences. Because their parents have not had to navigate university admissions or academic culture, they can only offer limited support and advice.

What It's Like to Be a First-Generation Graduate Student

Fabio Peña said, “It can be a culture shock for us navigating life, especially in university. Since we’re the first in our families to have these experiences, we sometimes don’t know how to act or react. We don’t have stories from our families of how they adjusted to school; everything is totally new.”1

Finding yourself in an unfamiliar environment and not knowing how things are done can lead to mistakes, making you feel inadequate, insecure and frustrated. While they aren’t the only graduate students who suffer from imposter syndrome, it can be especially troublesome for first-generation students. One first-gen who went on to earn her PhD wrote, “I realize that my confusion, uncertainty and constant feelings of foolishness all stem from the fact that I am a first-generation college student.”8

A significant misconception about college and careers many first-generation students share is that getting a good job naturally follows from earning a degree and good grades. In reality, 70% of professionals are hired by people they know. That means taking advantage of collegiate networking opportunities through internships, conferences, and other avenues is just as important as the coursework.9, 10

Advice for First-Generation Graduate School Students

By the time you enroll in graduate school as a first-gen student, you will probably have already overcome many obstacles. So the first piece of advice is to give yourself credit for that. Embrace who you are and take pride in your accomplishments so far.

One first-generation graduate student, writing about the shame some feel about their backgrounds, said, “A key part of dealing with this feeling of ‘background embarrassment’ is to remember that our lives are not stationary and that while we may have defined our lives by a certain kind of upbringing or background, there is no reason that we can’t honor that history while growing in new, often unexpected, ways.”11

Aside from the psychological benefits of embracing your identity, there are also practical benefits of identifying yourself as a first-generation student. Highlighting your first-generation status in graduate school application materials helps admissions officers understand your work ethic and potential. It may also help you connect with financial support or other resources dedicated to first-generation students.

Navigating Graduate School as a First-Generation Graduate Student

Once you’ve settled on attending graduate school, the following tips from many sources can help you complete your degree and achieve your career goals.

You may make mistakes along the way, but remember that mistakes and discomfort are part of growth. Fabio Peña offers this advice, which applies to every suggestion that follows, “Be persistent. As first-gens, we often get rejected, and it’s easy to be discouraged. Just keep trying. The worst that can happen is if they say no.”12

Learn About School Resources

Thoroughly explore career resources, financial aid, student support services, and student organizations. You may be surprised and delighted by what you find out. Remember that these resources have been created to help students just like you.

Make Networking a Priority

Networking opens career doors. But networking and building relationships aren’t just transactional. Your network can also be a source of strength for you on a personal level.

Get to know your professors and other students. Attend professional development events. Remember that you can network virtually as well as in person so build your online presence as a professional.

Find and Work with Mentors

Seek mentorship through your university, professional associations in your field, national mentorship programs like FirstHub, and informal channels. There’s no need to have just one mentor, and having another first-gen in your mentor support network can be especially helpful.

Ask for Help and Ask Questions

If you encounter something you don’t understand, whether it's an assignment, a process, or a school policy, ask questions. There’s no shame in not knowing all the ins and outs of a system.

If you need some assistance, whether it’s emotional support, financial aid or help with your coursework, university requirements, or attending a conference, ask for it. Reach out to the university for official resources, classmates, and your support network.

Benefits of the Albers MBA Program for First-Generation College Students

The comprehensive advantages of an Albers online MBA stem from our philosophy of holistic education to create dynamic, values-driven leaders for these times. Our focus on your success begins with the program design and extends to support systems for all students and programs specifically for first-generation students.

Our Online MBA Program Fits into Your Life

Seattle University’s online MBA program is built expressly for working professionals. After a three-day residency retreat that launches your first course and helps you get to know your classmates, you can complete all the coursework online.

Our online learning environment allows you to complete your coursework on your own time, in coordination with a full-time job and other responsibilities, and year-round scheduling ensures that the program can be completed in a timely manner. You can complete the program in as little as 2.5 years.

All Seattle University Student Resources Are at Your Disposal

Career Services, including the renowned Albers Mentor Program, networking events, professional development opportunities, and resume writing assistance, are available to you. If you live in the area, you can use the Student Health Center and the Rec Center. And you can join and participate in student clubs if you can make occasional trips to campus.

Resources Just for First-Generation Students

We are proud to support our first-generation students in their journey to leadership with an array of resources coordinated by Student Success and Outreach, which can be accessed online or through the on-campus Outreach Center.

Two of the many events, organizations, and publications for first-generation students are “Imprint,” an annual publication of creative and scholarly writing by Seattle U’s first-gen community, and Tri-Alpha. This national first-generation college student honor society is also open to graduate students.

Bring Your Success Into Focus at Seattle University

At the Seattle University Albers School of Business and Economics, we see who you are today and your potential. Talk with an admissions advisor today to learn more about how we can help you realize your career and personal goals.