Being "First Gen"

Written by: Ayeasha Irshad- ZEAL Blogger and Editor

Let’s hear a student’s story retold by University Affairs

When the student moved into residence at the University of Waterloo about 16 years ago, she found the experience nerve – wrecking. Her parents supported her, but her dad was a machinist who had never gone to university and her mom hadn’t finished high school. She saw a reference to “first generation student” on the application form but she didn’t remember checking the box.

“It didn’t seem to be a pressing characteristic,” she said. “I didn’t think it was important.”

However, this characteristic was essential to how her first year, as well as the next few years, were going to play out. Without anyone to help her to familiarize university settings, she became overwhelmed sorting through a confusing array of course options and finding a way to create an effective study plan for herself. She brought a heavy backpack filled with all her books to campus, not realizing that she only needed to bring books for the courses she had that day. As another blow to her confidence, she sensed a feeling of being left behind as many students around her already found an understanding to how everything worked.

Fortunately, this student was able to make it through her undergraduate years and achieve her MEd from the Ontario institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She became a coordinator of first year programs at the age of 28, where she dealt with “first-gen” students like she once was.

In this student’s case, as well as for many others, not all tend to identify as first generation students.

This is either because they feel that its not that big of a deal or because they just don’t wish to.

Nevertheless, a student not identifying him or herself as a “first-gen” can block oneself from any help that a campus can provide to a them. In turn, not getting the needed help has its consequences, ones that are probably far greater than just losing confidence.

As you may have already guessed, this blog post speaks to first generation or so called “first gen” students. Who are they though? What makes them unique to the post-secondary experience? While the term may be quite self-explanatory, the nuance of the identity needs to be examined. According to the Center for First Generation Success, First generation students are generally categorized as those who are the first in their family to attend post-secondary. Specifically, they are students who have biological

parents who have either not completed high school, attended post-secondary for some time but never completed a degree, or have completed their post-secondary but not within the country the student is currently studying in.

While this term has been defined in a textbook sense, let’s define the term a bit more meaningfully.

Being a “first gen” means that a student is unfamiliar and practically new to the post – secondary setting. They have no one to turn to when they wish to seek advice on navigating through this setting.

Despite this, being a “first gen” does not mean that the student is limited to the foreign campus setting and lacks the complete knowledge and experience to achieve. A “first – gen” is someone who’s aware of their situation, acknowledges it, but somehow overcomes their limitations by seeking out help, support, and resources that can put them on the right track.

Getting to the real point of this post, ZEAL is one such resource for success. It is an online platform that hosts weekly virtual peer support groups for first generation students. Our goal is to be a service that helps support overlooked students who will potentially become the next generation of researchers, leaders, and artists. This platform provides consultations where we will equip students with campus resources and plans to help them to reach their maximized potentials. In this way, we wish to tackle challenges that students face in a space where values such as respect, inclusivity, and empathy are upheld and maintained.

Today, this blog site, with this post being the first of many, will allow students to not only read and take in hope for themselves but also allow a place where they can fully express themselves. As ZEAL’s second component, We will be allowing students from across York university to write about their experiences, concerns, and thoughts about the post-secondary experience while hopefully ensuring that students will be well supported by this platform.

We leave this post hoping that any student who stumbles upon it can come to realize that being a “first gen” does not always have to be a disadvantage. If this identity is held correctly, a student can be able to reach to far successful places. Places that one may have not thought possible.


 Defining First - Generation (2017, November 20) Center For First Generation Student Success.

Retrieved March 10, 2021 from

 Hayes, D (2015, November 03) Helping First – Generation Students Find Their Way. University



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