First Gen College Student - Facing Challenges

You are not defined by your circumstances, rather how you rise and persevere regardless of the obstacles or barriers.
— Mary Nguyen

My parents immigrated from Vietnam to the States in the 1990’s. Growing up, they would occasionally talk about how neither of them pursued higher education and expressed the importance of the opportunities my siblings and I had. My dad would tell me stories about how he started working as a fisherman at just 13 years old to help his mom provide. How majority of people in their country still rode bicycles versus being able to afford cars.

My parents did a really good job at painting a picture and reminding us of the lifestyle they had compared to the one we were given. And to solidify their words, my mom’s mom (still in Vietnam) would send us her home videos just so that we could visually see what life was like for my parents. It definitely wasn’t “convenient” or '‘glamorous” like what you see here…but it was beautiful.

I watched both of my parents start as a blank canvas with a language barrier, lack of resources and support. Yet they were so persevering and resilient. They made sure that their work ethics and hustle mentalities were instilled into me (thanks mom and dad). So now when people ask “how did you make it through xyz?” I just think - I gave myself no choice. I have no excuses. I created a vision for myself and I didn’t stop until I achieved it.


I vividly remember starting elementary school with absolutely no ability to speak English. Vietnamese was my first language, and as harsh as it may sounds, my mom banned speaking English at home so that we could “keep our roots”. It was tough. I didn’t understand my teachers and classmates. They would often act-out words for me, until I’d understand what they were saying.

But I was a fast learner. By the 2nd grade, I was speaking fluent English. My mom had enrolled me in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program early on and before you knew it, I was reading and writing like nobody’s business. I would remember the expressions on the cafeteria ladies’ faces…”well, why don’t you have an accent?” AHA! I didn’t have one, because I became fluent in both languages by the age of like 7.

By the age of 9 or 10, my mom also enrolled me in a Vietnamese language learning class. This wasn’t necessarily to learn per say, but she was really adamant in her children maintaining their heritage (even though she became so much more relaxed on the rest of my younger siblings…I was the oldest). I didn’t last long in the program though, because my Vietnamese reading and writing level surpassed the kids my age in that program (again, thanks mom and dad).

I ultimately hate to say that since living on my own, I’ve lost a lot of my Vietnamese speaking, reading, and writing skills. Mom really knew what she was talking about when she made us speak only Vietnamese at home. It really does take consistency or you’ll lose it, especially when English ends up being your dominant language, sigh.

My biggest struggle

My greatest challenge as a first-gen college student was pretty similar to what I faced as a kid in general. My parents were always extremely busy, working all of the time. They were often absent in my extra-curricular activities and any pursuit outside of the classrooms. I can’t entirely blame them, they only knew what was necessary (money and a roof over our heads) and well, the culture here is just different.

In my last semester of high school, I had already known that I couldn’t heavily depend on my parents anymore. They were in the process of moving to a completely different state (I decided to stay to pursue college plans), plus they had really little insights on the challenges I was about to face as a student.

I heavily lacked the resources, mentorship, direction, (and let’s not also forget money) most teens at my age were given from their parents. They were super unfamiliar with the things I was going through, simply because they never took that route - higher education, student loans, choosing a career path, etc.

So I spent the first few years semi-winging it in addition to leaving the nest at 17. Some would say that I deliberately put myself in a whirlwind of chaos (and it felt like it), but I was completely determined to thrive on my own.

Overcoming the barriers

Despite feeling super lost, the best thing I knew to do at the time for myself was simply utilize available resources and reached out to successful people for guidance. I did a ton of research for everything I was curious about and wanted to pursue, and never gave up just because I “lacked” something.

My biggest tips for first gen students are to never underestimate the power of networking, maximizing resources, and using your upbringing as a driving factor of achieving your dreams.

  • It’s important to seek assistance and information early on so that you are properly setting yourself up for success.

  • Be smart in your financial decisions right now, because college is an investment and debt can quickly accumulate.

  • Find and build a valuable support system; talk to those who have already achieved what you’re trying to do.

You are not defined by your circumstances, rather how you rise and persevere regardless of the obstacles or barriers.