How to navigate college as a first-generation student

Hera Molina ’22 shares how she found her way at Gettysburg

Hera Molina with a group of women standing next to a food truck
Hera Molina ’22 with friends at a “Taco Tuesday” event, hosted by the Office of Multicultural Engagement (OME).

For everyone, applying to and attending college is a new experience that comes with its own sets of milestones, accomplishments and anxiously-awaited moments. But if you are a first-generation college student, the college experience is new not just for you, but for your entire family, as well. I am a proud first-generation student. I am the youngest of three siblings and the daughter of immigrant parents from El Salvador.

My family has always reminded me that I have many opportunities to be someone in life. For me, college was one of those opportunities, but the process of applying as a first gen student looked a bit different for me than it did for my peers. There were many times when I would try to go to my family for help with my college applications, like submitting the FAFSA, and they couldn’t help because they didn’t know how.

I realized early on that being a first-generation college student was a big deal, and that the experience didn’t come with a rule book. I knew that I would have to be independent and forge my own path. Here’s what I’ve learned being a first-generation student at Gettysburg College.

Students sitting around a table in a social space inside of the Office of Multicultural Engagement
Students gather at an Open House event at the Office of Multicultural Engagement (OME).

Build Community

It was through groups like the Office of Multicultural Engagement (OME), that I received help and support as a first-gen student. At OME, I got to meet other first-gen students and students with similar backgrounds—people who would become some of my best friends I still have today!

The OME, along with many other offices around campus, also create events—some traditions, others new—to help all Gettysburg College students come together. Whether it’s a festival like Diwali, or an educational program like Women in STEM, each office has something for people of similar interests to come together and learn about each other and the topic being presented.

Similarly, Gettysburg College has many student-led organizations that come together to create space for themselves. Some of these clubs include the Latin American Student Association, Black Student Union and Asian Student Alliance, among others. Although each club centers around a specific identity or culture, each club creates a space to have conversations and ask questions. For example, I joined the Gettysburg African Student Association (GASA) as a first-year student, and I saw it as an opportunity to learn about a variety of cultures that come from one place. I met so many wonderful people, and decided to become treasurer in my Sophomore year! Student-led organizations at Gettysburg are a great place to continue learning, build your community, step outside your comfort zone, and have fun doing it. As a first-generation student, joining these clubs and organizations really helped me develop a sense of family and community away from home that I could rely on.

Hera Molina performing on stage with the Sunderman Conservatory wind symphony
Molina performs with the Sunderman Conservatory of Music wind symphony in fall 2019.

Define Your Path

As a first-generation student, I was determined to make my mark and make a difference. During my sophomore year at Gettysburg, I became a mentor for other incoming first-gen students at the college who were looking for additional help and resources to navigate their first year of college. This was my way of “paying it forward:” I was guided by mentors who helped me to be successful in my first year, and I knew I wanted to continue that by being a mentor for other first-gen students.

Being a mentor has also helped me accept myself as a person and as the woman I was meant to be. Some of the first people that I came out to were the first-gen friends that I made at the beginning of my first year, and their support gave me some validity in who I was and where I wanted to go. With my newfound confidence I founded “Hera’s Closet,” a donation-based nonprofit aimed at helping transgender and nonbinary people enhance their everyday wardrobe. The idea came from an exchange that I had with an OME staff member who donated some clothes to me, and after a few months my idea to broaden this into a campus-wide initiative was created! To me, that experience proved what I already knew: that the options to create and make change weren’t limited to me just because I was first-generation. I knew and felt that I was and would be supported every step of the way on my college journey both academically and personally.

Hera Molina working with a classmate in a classroom
Molina and a classmate work with Draw The Lines PA, a civic educational and engagement initiative with a legislative mapping contest.

Seek Support

Throughout my time here at Gettysburg, I have had a plethora of experiences—ranging from amazing to difficult—that I embraced and overcame with the help of mentors and friends. Although I have been able to accomplish many things at Gettysburg, and have been able to learn and grow academically, it wasn’t without some difficulty. My biggest piece of advice for students, first-generation or not, is to ask for help!

I come from a family where we are taught that we don’t ask for help, but Gettysburg has taught me that asking for help is never a bad thing—it’s actually a smart decision! Your professors and advisors want to help you, if you’ll let them. Make use of your professors’ office hours, or utilize the academic support on campus such as the writing center or peer tutoring. Gettysburg also offers free counseling services to all of its students, and this has also been a big help in both my personal and academic life.

Being a first-generation student isn’t easy, and that is the honest truth. If you take one thing from this article, let it be this: you are a first in something, so don’t be afraid to figure out what that is! My experience is just that: my experience—and you will have your own. I hope you will take this article and use it as a reference to create your own rulebook!

Learn more about available resources for first generation students at Gettysburg College.

By Hera Molina ’22
Photos by Miranda Harple and Shawna Sherrell
Posted: 12/17/20