SWEet Wisdom: Overcoming Challenges as a First-generation College Student

This month’s SWEet Wisdom focuses on engineers who were first-generation college students. They share how they overcame their biggest challenges.
SWEet Wisdom: Overcoming Challenges as a First-generation College Student -

This month’s SWEet Wisdom focuses on engineers who were first-generation college students. They share how they overcame their biggest challenges. Read on to hear more about their experiences!

As a first-generation college student, what was the biggest challenge you faced and how did you navigate and overcome it?

SWEet Wisdom: Overcoming Challenges as a First-generation College Student -Monica Harrison
FY22 Chair Membership, FY22 Golden Gate Outreach Chair, local Sonoma county SWENext advisor for 3 clubs
Keysight Technologies – R&D IC Engineer
B.S Electrical Engineering – San Francisco State University

The cost, tuition, loans, financial aid. It was all overwhelming. I had no concept of that much money. I actually deferred and then delayed attending for a few years after HS graduation. I distinctly remember getting a tuition statement from UC Santa Cruz for $5k that I was supposed to come up with. It might as well have been $50k. That was an unheard of amount of money for me at the time. I ended up working and going to Community College and then transferring. I still had to take out loans, but I understood money better by then and it was less intimidating.

There are so many more resources and programs now to help guide first generation students, students from low income and students for whom English is a second language through the application and financial aid process.

The college and university application process and financial aid process is a huge bureaucratic system that can be very intimidating. Just remember a STEM degree is a path to a better life, it opens up so many opportunities. Taking on debt feels like a big risk, but when you complete your degree that debt will be manageable.

SWEet Wisdom: Overcoming Challenges as a First-generation College Student -Emily Austin
SWE Member
GlobalFoundries – Principle Engineer – Business Operations Analyst
BS in Mechanical Engineering – UVM
MBA in Supply Chain Logistics – Champlain College

As a first generation college student (and the oldest of my siblings), my biggest challenge was choosing whether or not to go out of state for college.  I was born in Vermont, which is where my whole family lives, and had never lived farther than 40 minutes away from my Aunts, Uncles, and Grandparents.  While I had the opportunity to tour some colleges away from home, I struggled trying to find one that felt right.  It was also difficult because at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, so I wasn’t choosing a college based on their availability of any specific degree program.  In the end, I decided that staying close to family and in a place that was familiar and comfortable to me was the most important.  I applied and got accepted to a single school 10 minutes away from my  home: the University of Vermont.  I ended up having a great college experience, enjoyed my degree program and teachers, and am happy that I stayed close to home.  However, I think there are some things that I missed out on, like building strong friendships and gaining confidence to try something new.  My advice to high school students is that being outside your comfort zone in college is a good thing!  If you are trying to decide between a college that is 10 minutes away, 2 hours away, or 3 plane connections away from your family, maybe consider the one that is 2 hours away to give yourself a little bit of space to grow.  Being in a new place, learning new things, and getting comfortable in a new setting will help you to grow your confidence and will open up more opportunities for the future!

SWEet Wisdom: Overcoming Challenges as a First-generation College Student -Shandra Bates
SWE Member
Air Force Civilian Service – Scientist & Engineer Career Field Administrator
M.S. Mechanical Engineering – University of Utah

My biggest challenge was finding a good way to pay for college.  Seeing my parents struggle financially, I determined very young (with encouragement from my family) that I was going to college.  My family and I spent years figuring out the best options to minimize the financial burden of college. A majority of my education was paid via college scholarships and financial aid. This included receiving counseling, planning accordingly, and applying to various opportunities.  I was fortunate to receive assistance from FAFSA, my alma mater, SWE, SMART, and a few other sources.  My parents provided a roof over my head while attending school and I was set up very well for my early career, providing a bit more financial freedom than some of my peers. My main suggestion is to not leave any stones unturned.  You should search for options and stay informed on what might be possible.  There are a lot of organizations that are helping to drive diversity and gender inclusion in engineering; please don’t pass them up.

About the Author:

Michelle Scott is a Medical Device and Combination Product Quality Engineer at Pfizer. Michelle has a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Akron.

 

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