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What Is It Like Navigating College As A First-Gen?

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Cheryl Zhang is a first-generation college student who went into university with a plan to become a doctor, but things didn’t go as planned.

Photo by Wix.

Zhang graduated from a high school in Philadelphia and decided to attend Temple University because it was the most affordable option. "I decided to go to Temple because it was mainly closed to home. I already knew I was going to commute because I don't have the money to live on campus," Zhang says. Zhang decided to pay for her tuition herself to not put any financial stress on her parents.

Zhang, who is a senior, started off as a biology major on the pre-med track because it was one of the well known occupations. She later realized that the pre-med path was not for her.

She wasn’t exposed to many different career paths in high school, so she took some time to figure out what she wanted to study. Zhang talked to a Temple alumnus who worked in the medical industry for years but now works with insurance companies to plan events. Learning that event planning was a career option, Zhang’s interest was piqued. Zhang is now studying tourism and hospitality management with a concentration in events.

Figuring out her career path was just one of the many challenges Zhang faced in college. During her freshman year, Zhang had to learn how to apply for financial aid for the first time on her own. “I accidentally recorded my dad's earnings as my income. So it looks like I have a lot of money. I was given almost nothing in financial aid and for a really long time, it was a lot of back and forth between me and the financial aid office. Financial aid was difficult to navigate during my first year,” Zhang says.

Although Zhang learned how to apply for financial aid, every year she struggles to pay for her tuition. Financial aid can cover the majority of the tuition, but as a full-time student, it can be hard to figure how to pay the rest.

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Zhang stated, “Every year I always panic that I won't have enough money to pay for each semester. I do take a loan but even with loans, it’s not enough. I learned how to juggle two jobs ever since my freshman year.”

Zhang experienced many challenges throughout college that some first-generation students can relate to. Despite all the challenges, Zhang was able to push through college by reminding herself that her goal is to not struggle as much as her immigrant parents.

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