When Melanie Godinez-Cedillo began college, she realized that she was starting at a different point than her peers.
As the first member of her family to attend college, the UNC senior said she had a tough time adapting academically and socially when she first began college. She wasn't able to talk to her parents about her residence hall, meal plan or financial aid, instead having to figure out many of the systems on her own.
"I even thought about transferring out," Godinez-Cedillo, a political science and public policy major, said. "I had no real support system at home because my parents did not know what college was.”
First-generation students make up nearly 20 percent of the undergraduate student body at UNC. Students are considered first-generation if their parents did not complete a 4-year college or university degree.
"To me, a first-generation student is somebody who is breaking barriers," Godinez-Cedillo said. "Kind of building roots in the U.S. for their family and for those to come."
Sophomore Andrea Hojas said that she also had a challenging time navigating college life as a first-generation student. She felt a lot of pressure but realized it was unfair to compare herself to other students because she did not have the same opportunities, resources and connections.
Hojas said that the pandemic caused her to miss being in person for her first year of college, so it was hard to get involved in activities on campus.
"I still feel like I haven't found a group of people that I can relate to," she said. "It is hard because it feels like everyone already knows what they are doing and what they want."
As a first-generation student, senior history major David Mora said that he often puts a lot of pressure on himself.
"My parents are from Costa Rica," Mora said. "They've told me stories about them immigrating over and how difficult it was, and my mom had to raise my two siblings in Costa Rica by herself.”
He said he is lucky to have the opportunity to attend college, and he wants to make the best out of his parents' struggles and sacrifices.
"It's also just kind of scary," he said. "It adds this 'what if it all goes wrong?' feelings to it."
Godinez-Cedillo said people often blame first-generation students' parents for not being able to contribute to college as much as some other students' families. She said many families struggle with language barriers or low socioeconomic status.
"One of the largest myths is that our families don't care about our education," she said. "But I think our families do care a lot about our well-being.”
Godinez-Cedillo said her family shows their support in every way they can. Her family often encourages her with Mexican expressions like "échale ganas," which means "give it all you got."
Godinez-Cedillo said she found a sense of community at the University through Mi Pueblo, a Latinx student organization at UNC. It's important for first-generation students transitioning to college to ask for help and find a group of people to relate to, she said.
At UNC, there are several programs dedicated to the success of first-generation students, including the Lookout Scholars Program and the First-Generation Student Association. Carolina Covenant, the University's debt-free scholarship program for low-income students, also supports first-generation students — more than half of enrolled Covenant scholars are also the first in their family to attend college.
Since first-generation students' parents may be unsure of how to assist them with the transition to college, students should reach out to upperclassmen who were once in their shoes, Godinez-Cedillo said.
“I would tell first-generation college students — first-years specifically — that college might seem really, really difficult," she said. “But if you lean on each other and stay rooted to who you are as a person, you will be able to succeed in whatever you pursue.”
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