Advice to First-Generation College Students

Advice to First-Generation College Students

MTSU Music Business major Trianne Newbrey sitting on a blue bench outside of Peck Hall. Photo by John Goodwin

“You’re the first in our family to get a college degree. We’re so proud of you!” my grandfather would say with his thick Filipino accent over the phone. I’m the first in my family to get a college degree, so my entire family has been treating this like a big deal for years. Setting foot on campus as a freshman made me realize I really didn’t know what I was getting into; I didn’t know where to go or what to do if I had any questions. It was, without a doubt, very scary. There were no parents to go to for basic college questions. I was completely on my own.

As a graduating senior, I’m proud to say I’ve survived college – yay! – but there’s plenty of things I wished I had known during my college career to make the ride a bit smoother. From one first-generation college student to another, I want to share some lessons I’ve learned over these past four years at MTSU.

But first, let me give you a bit of background.

Growing up in Hawaii

An childhood photo of Public Relations major Trianne Newbrey at a beach in Hawaii. She and her baby sister are in the arms of her dad.

A childhood photo of me with my dad and younger sister at a beach in Hawaii

My family moved to Nashville before I could even remember, but a lot of my summers were spent out in Oahu, Hawaii. My parents and aunt were the first in our family to move to the mainland U.S. Before my parents started their own business, we’d frequently visit family in Hawaii; I even took my first steps and celebrated my first birthday there. Ultimately, my parents moved to Tennessee to provide me a better education and future. A lot of my childhood memories are of my parents and family boasting about me, their “smart” daughter, and how I’m going to be such a success. “Oh, she’s so smart because she’s Asian,” my friends would tease in grade school. “You’re probably going to be some famous math genius when you grow up.” No, actually, I wasn’t. You see, math did interest me, but it wasn’t what I wanted to pursue a career in.

Here’s what I’ve discovered in my life: saying job titles like “engineer” and “lawyer” turn heads, not “studio musician” or “public relations specialist.” I wish I could reenact the face my parents made when I told them I was going to major in music (it was a mix of disappointment and loss of interest). It hurt, but I kept on pushing.

Don’t be afraid to pursue what interests you

Childhood photo of Trianne Newbrey, a Public Relations major, playing a small, toy piano

Childhood photo of me (and to think my parents wanted me to be a STEM major with this much raw talent)

It’s likely that if your parents are excited about your college enrollment, they’ll want you to pursue a degree that will land you a fancy job title. Maybe being a doctor or lawyer like your family wants isn’t your cup of tea, but becoming a geologist rocks your socks (ba dum tss!). You deserve to pursue a degree that makes you happy. Don’t let your family’s ambitions dissuade you.

It took my parents almost the entire time I was enrolled in college to finally accept my music business degree. It was a constant battle to prove to them that I was making small strides in my college career. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you might have to go through college without the emotional support of your parents; it’s hard but it teaches you persistence and self-motivation.

Research all of your potential majors

MTSU offers over 180 undergraduate degrees to choose from. Comb through them to find ones that interest you. There are more majors at your fingertips than you think! Don’t limit your options. If I could go back in time, I would have done strictly gen-eds my first semester to research majors that interested me. However, that’s probably not the case for those of us who are already enrolled in college. Finding a new, interesting major halfway through your semester shouldn’t keep you from switching. In fact, we have an entirely separate article on why it’s okay to switch majors.

You’ll realize scholarships are your best friend

If you have a family similar to mine, your parents likely didn’t set up a college fund for you. In this instance, scholarships can become your best friend. MTSU offers up an array of scholarships to help fund your college experience. You can also apply to private scholarships through databases like FastWeb to find scholarships best-suited for you.

Not really a fan of applying to scholarships? If you have the available hours, MTSU also offers up some pretty interesting jobs. This is a great way to build work experience for your resumé without having to leave campus grounds. It’s not easy working while being a full-time student, but a little time management goes a long way. I’ve had my fair share of simultaneously working three jobs while in college, but I made it work and it’s helped me out in the long run. Just remember: your classes are more important to uphold.

Seek advice from your adviser and student services

Kristen Janson, a computer science adviser in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences, talks in her office with senior Josephine Campos. (MTSU file photo by J. Intintoli)

You’ll realize that any academic question you have won’t be something your parents can answer. This is where your advisors and student services around campus will come in handy. Need help crafting a resumé or finding an internship? Look to the Career Development Center for help. Having some trouble in one of your classes? Drop by the Tutoring Spot in the Library for some one-on-one assistance. If you’re ever confused, remember that your advisor is your best resource. Look to them for help if you don’t know where to get started.

Get involved with student organizations

Joining a student organization provides you with learning opportunities outside of the classroom in MTSU’s community. It also doubles as a great way to make new friends with similar interests as you. There are so many student organizations on campus that there has to be at least one that piques your interest! Another great way to figure out what student organizations to get involved with is by asking the people in your major what organizations they recommend.

When I got more involved with the recording industry and journalism departments, I joined MTSU Sidelines and AMP Entertainment. Sure, I didn’t get involved with student organizations until the last year into my college career, but it’s helped me grow immensely in that year of involvement. I’ve made friends, improved my writing, and dabbled in content creation because of these student organizations. There’s so much that MTSU has to offer, and student organizations are something I would have definitely gotten involved with earlier had I known about them.

Take a deep breath

Say it with me: “It’ll be alright.” You might not know what you’re doing from time to time, but just take a deep breath and keep your head up. It’s going to feel like you’re up to your shoulders in water, but you’re not drowning, you’re slowly learning to swim and that’s better than just letting the current take you under. Big metaphors aside, college is a huge learning curve, but you’ll fall into a career that will make you happy. At the end of the day, your family will be smiling ear-to-ear just to watch you walk across the stage at graduation.

Remember: you’re the first in your family to do this, so, naturally, you’re going to make some mistakes along the way. You’re going to go through college and have some regrets but don’t beat yourself up about that. College is a huge learning curve and you’re not expected to know where to go or what to do right off the bat. To all my fellow first-generation students out there: you’ve got this.


Author Trianne Newbrey is a senior at MTSU, majoring in integrated studies in the University College with minors in music industry and public relations. The views and opinions expressed above are her own and don’t necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of Middle Tennessee State University.