What it’s like being first in your family to go to university

Student at work on computer

Three students describe their experience of stepping into the unknown

Going to university can bring different challenges if you’re a first-generation student. While your family may be supportive, they won’t have experience of the path you’re choosing.

You may have to look elsewhere for advice on essential steps, such as choosing where to go, completing your application and finding accommodation.

We spoke to students from the University of Bedfordshire to hear what it was like for them.

Sarah Boateng graduated five years ago with a degree in psychology, counselling and therapies. She now runs the Igea Enterprise, an organisation that supplies period products to girls in rural communities in Africa.

“I absolutely sucked my schoolteachers dry of information and help. I asked them about every step of my university application. They helped me choose what course to study, they helped me to understand how to make a decision about universities and how to apply.

“The application process was hard because I didn’t know how to sell myself. I couldn’t even get a part time job because I was so bad at applications, I didn’t proofread them, I didn’t know what to say about myself. 

“Sometimes you need someone to sit with you and tell you these things, otherwise how are you meant to know?

“I had no clue about Ucas. I hadn’t heard of a student loan and I left my accommodation to the very last minute because I thought it was something that the university sorted out for me.

“My parents are first generation immigrants from Ghana. For them it was an absolute must that I went to university. When they came with me to look around they were really excited, but when they left I knew that it was up to me to put myself out there, I had to push myself out of my comfort zone.

“Try to feel confident. This is your journey so focus on yourself. And never feel bad about asking for help, the university is there to support you so take all you help you can get.”

Dominika Kalinowska studied psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, graduating in 2019. She is now studying for a Master’s in consumer psychology.

“Applying to university was a very stressful experience for me. I was living in Poland and didn’t speak a lot of English, so I applied through an agency, which didn’t give me a lot of information to go on. 

“They gave me three universities to choose from. Looking back now it was totally ridiculous, like gambling. I was lucky though, I picked the University of Bedfordshire and I loved it there.

“I looked on the internet a lot for information - I searched for different groups on Facebook, I searched for alumni groups and asked for help, there is also a student ambassador scheme and I found that speaking to students was the most helpful thing. 

“YouTube is also a really good way to find out about accommodation and get a sense of what it’s going to be like.

“My mum was not convinced about me going to university. Not only was it in a different country, but it was a different language and I was young, I was only 18 at the time. She was petrified.

“The first year was the hardest as I had to learn the language and make friends. You have to really push yourself out of your comfort zone and take any help that’s available. 

“I emailed the university’s financial advisors and managed to get some scholarship money, which really helped. The student services advertise themselves everywhere, so you should always ask for anything you need.

“Also you should feel proud that you’re there. I settled in and I loved university.”

Freshers Fayre

Radio and audio student Megan Murphy moved to the University of Bedfordshire from Jersey. She’s in the second year of her degree.

“One of the main things with me was that my parents didn’t see university as necessary. They set up their own business without going to uni and they couldn’t see the point of getting into all that debt. 

“But I’m headstrong and I knew what was right for me. I told them why I wanted to do the course and that it was something I was passionate about, and they came around in the end.

“We had a lot of help at school with applications and everyone from our form tutors to our head of year was very hands-on. 

“When it came to choosing a university and getting ready to start I found the TSR forums really useful. Students don’t tend to sugar coat things so I feel like you can get some genuine advice on places like that.

“The internet is your best friend when it comes to university. It shows you that you’re not alone, it answers any questions you might have, and it puts you in touch with students who are really happy to help out and advise and it makes things less of a surprise when you get there.”

About our sponsor

University of Bedfordshire logo

The University of Bedfordshire is a modern, friendly university with campuses in Luton, Bedford, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, just 40 minutes away from London. At Bedfordshire, the support you receive will ensure you have everything in place to fulfil your potential and succeed.

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