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Advice for first generation university students

Being the first person in your family to go to university may mean you have a particular set of challenges. PhD student Charisma Hehakaya shares her tips for any other first-generation students

Charisma Hehakaya 's avatar

Charisma Hehakaya

PhD candidate at the division of imaging and oncology at University Medical Centre Utrecht
October 20 2021
A group of university students


The first person in their family to go to university is often known as a first-generation student. University is not always an easy journey for these students and often they may require extra attention.

Based on my experiences of being the first in my family to attend university, with social and financial challenges along the way, I would like to share some advice for other students who might find themselves in a similar position. 

When I was a cleaner in a hospital at the age of 13, I did not expect that I would eventually be working as a PhD candidate in the division of imaging and oncology at University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands, with a post-master’s degree in clinical epidemiology.

I came from an unstable low-income family in the Netherlands and cared for other family members. After failing my secondary school exams, I had to retake them in another town. This meant I had to live on my own and find a living space and a job. Starting the next year at university in an even more different environment took some getting used to.

Take the time to get used to university

I felt like I didn’t belong at university because some things were not obvious and were new – when should I participate in class, was I allowed to ask questions? But don’t worry, you will learn these things in time.

Taking part in social activities and meeting people to exchange experiences will help you to realise that you aren’t alone and help you make sense of how things work at university.

You may also face difficulties explaining academia to family members who have never been to university. It can help to tell them about the assignments you are working on and what you are learning to help them feel involved.

Never compare your journey to others

Many of the struggles for people like me are socially driven and arise primarily from drawing comparisons with others. I couldn’t always relate to the students around me. 

Since I had to combine study with work, I could not spend as much time studying as other students did. This meant I often did not get the highest grades, which sometimes felt disheartening. The education system often feels like it separates students of different abilities.

However, be aware that your abilities cannot be captured in one grade. Instead focus on your strengths and on what you have achieved on your own. With motivation, resilience and perseverance, you will achieve much more in the long run.

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Develop techniques to prioritise and organise

Because of my circumstances, I had to learn to prioritise and organise my job and university work while doing my undergraduate degree. This created a lot of pressure and I therefore struggled with focusing on my studies and mastering time management. It is completely normal to feel overwhelmed.

Make sure you are informed about all deadlines, schedules, lectures and requirements. Keep in touch with other students on your course and create a timetable of all your tasks to help you stay on top of what you need to do. It’s always worth speaking to your tutor if you are feeling overwhelmed. 

Engage and find a mentor

Talk to people you admire and ask them to mentor you. They don’t have to be people with a similar background to you or in one particular industry. They can be anyone at different levels — from peers to faculty members and within or outside academia. You can also connect with people in companies and careers you aspire towards and ask for advice.

I chose a teacher at my secondary school, someone from the company I worked at after graduation and now my PhD supervisors. I have also often helped students by mentoring them: this has helped me get to know myself better.

Just ask

First-gen students can often feel grateful just for what they have and often don’t know how to ask for more. I waited too long before seeking help or advice.

Asking for help can be difficult, so start with the small things. For example, I borrowed textbooks from fellow students and lecturers and asked for financial advice from the study counsellor.

At the end of an interview for my master’s thesis with my current PhD supervisor, I asked her if I could do a PhD under her supervision and it happened. 

In fact, when you ask questions, you demonstrate that you are proactive and willing to learn. 

Take charge and invest in yourself

I grew up speaking Dutch at school and Indonesian at home, so I struggled to express complex concepts in both Dutch and English. Public speaking is also not in my nature and I had trouble with stuttering.

That’s why I took language training together with public speaking. I also took a course in academic reading. These courses helped develop appropriate reading, vocabulary, comprehension and critical reading skills. Some of these courses are freely available on online learning platforms.

Your time at university is a great time to invest in personal growth; to find out what you like, but also to find out what you do not like. It can be difficult to explore what interests you in a new environment without having close contacts or a network. I worked several jobs and internships and talked to students or alumni who were following the same study programme and asked about their work to help me understand what I wanted to pursue.

Trust your abilities 

Many first-generation students have a strong work ethic, are dedicated, forward-thinking and good at building bridges between different worlds and people.

These are all qualities that can help you to thrive at university. So, being a first-generation student does not have to be a barrier – let it be your asset and enjoy the best of both worlds.

Charisma Hehakaya has established the First Generation Fund in collaboration with the Utrecht University Fund. The goal is to raise a total of €100,000 in 2021 and 2022, to help first-generation students financially. 


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