First in the Family

First generation student headshots

For first-generation students, it takes something extra to complete a college degree.

Karin Chandler graduated from Washington State University Vancouver in May 2015, at the age of 44. She is the proud possessor of something nobody else in her family has—a college degree.

Getting through college was a gut-wrenching rollercoaster of highs and lows.  She financed her education and living expenses with scholarships and a part-time flight attendant schedule. Finishing the degree took six years. She considers herself fortunate to have strong support from friends and family, a flexible job, and a powerful drive to complete every homework assignment on time, even from a hotel room or a seat on a plane awaiting a flight back to Portland.

About half the members of the freshman class at WSU Vancouver in the 2013/14 school year were the first in their families to attend college.


First-generation students are driven by the hope that a degree would give them a better job and a better quality of life. But once enrolled, first-generation students face a mountain of challenges, from culture shock to poor study habits to expenses. Their dropout rate is high.

“As a first-generation student, you have to have a lot of motivation to get to the university in the first place, but it’s also easy to get discouraged,” said Renny Christopher, vice chancellor for academic affairs at WSU Vancouver, who was the first in her family to go to college.

Cost is a big worry for first-generation students, who are more likely than their peers to come from lower-income families. Tuition is not the only financial challenge. For example, many first-generation students are independent and need to work. They may also be supporting children or other family members.

Something extra

Student and career counselor discussing optionsDespite hardships and obstacles, something keeps these students in school. They have something extra.

Consider Cesar Moreno, a recent anthropology graduate. Part of what kept him in school was the support he found at WSU Vancouver. Now he feels a responsibility to be a role model for his brothers. “It’s a cliché to say don’t give up no matter how difficult it gets, but I think it’s important,” Cesar said.

Many first-generation students cite above-and-beyond help and personal guidance as key factors in their desire to stay in school. Several mentioned the Student Diversity Center. WSU Vancouver has other services too, such as the Student Resource Center and newly formed Student Success Council.

Although she was ready for her college days to be over, Karin Chandler said she wouldn’t trade them for anything. “And since I’ve started school, a couple of my co-workers have told me I’m their inspiration, and they are going to school too,” she said.

Related links: Admissions | How to afford college | First-generation students | Financial Aid | Student Life | Visit campus

Share this article:

This article is summarized from Northwest Crimson & Gray Magazine

Northwest Crimson & Gray is the semiannual magazine of WSU Vancouver, produced to highlight the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in Southwest Washington. To read the full story, download the Fall 2014 issue online (PDF). You can also subscribe for free.