As the first person in her family to attend university, Zahra Fazal says she sometimes didn't know where to turn to for information other than Google.
After arriving at the University of British Columbia from her native Tanzania, she attended an orientation session that was filled with terms common on university campuses. She found herself quietly looking up definitions on her cellphone.
"I didn't know what 'credits' were. I didn't know what a 'faculty' was," she said.
Not understanding the system resulted in her enrolling in an intensive program that didn't suit her. She struggled academically and almost lost her scholarship.
Her early struggles inspired her to form the UBC First Generation Students Union, a club for students who are the first in their family to attend a post-secondary institution.
Advice and support
First-generation students are broadly defined as those who do not have an immediate family member who attended university.
The UBC club prefers the term 'first-generation low-income' (FGLI) students, as it highlights the financial challenges many first-generation students face.
Wolfgang Lehmann, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario, says research suggests that one of the strongest predictors of a student's success in university is whether one of their parents went to university.
First-generation students have a harder time getting into university in the first place, he says — and if they are admitted, they are at greater risk of dropping out than their peers.
Having university-educated parents has some obvious benefits as they tend to have higher incomes and can provide financial support.
Some benefits are more subtle, as having university-educated parents can make post-secondary education feel like a natural progression.
Fazal said the club, which she set up in 2019, offers first-generation students practical advice and emotional support from peers.
That can include help with navigating the enrolment process or connecting them with financial support they might not know about.
They can also help with mental health challenges. It's not unusual for first-generation students to grapple with social isolation and impostor syndrome — a nagging sense that they don't belong.
Many of the club's members are international students or first-generation Canadians who face issues of racism and food security. Some come from rural or remote communities.
Lehmann describes first-generation students as a heterogeneous group at the intersection of class, money and race.
"It intersects in many, many different kinds of ways, which also means … there can't be one solution to support and help first-generation students," he said.
UBC said in a statement that while it does not have centrally-targeted programming for first-generation students, there are university-wide programs, such as mental health supports and emergency bursaries, that are flexible enough to accommodate their needs.
Hard to explain
First-generation students can find themselves torn between their new lives on campus and their lives back home.
Fazal said she felt guilty about choosing to study rather than work and support her family.
"The biggest barrier in even thinking about university was the fact that I would be taking away a source of income for my family and they needed it," she said.
Wilson Tu moved with his family to Coquitlam, B.C., from Taiwan when he was in Grade 10. He's now working toward an integrated sciences degree at UBC focusing on computer science and cancer genetics.
As the first in his family to go to university, he says his family is supportive — but it can be hard to talk about what he does all day.
"They'll try their best, but they don't really understand what it's like, so it's kind of hard to share my experience more [deeply] with them," said Tu.
"... Even now I'm doing research, they still don't know what I'm researching. It's very hard to explain."
Putting a name on it
Tu joined the First Generation Students Union after he offered to help Fazal with some tech support for the club and realized its mission related to him and his experience. He credits the club with helping him at university, saying it "put a name" to how he was feeling.
But he says recruiting new members can be difficult as many students don't identify with the label.
Lehmann recalls talking to students about the idea of a club for first-generation students. Some liked the idea, but said they wouldn't join. They saw university as a pathway to a middle-class life and didn't want to dwell on their roots.
"It's an identity that a lot of people want to transcend, so that makes it that much more complicated," he said.
Fazal, who graduated in May and will begin a postgrad in epidemiology at Stanford University in California this fall, says identifying as a first-generation student is not about making excuses, but acknowledging challenges and finding solutions.
Lehmann agrees. First-generation students, he says, often assume the issues they're facing are unique to them rather than part of a larger pattern.
"I think it's important to have a conversation to alert students to the fact that being the first in your family is a thing, it's an issue, and it's one for which it's totally OK to seek help or support," he said.
Over time, he adds, some students see their first-generation identity as a source of pride.
"We tend to often think of being first generation as a kind of disadvantage. But it became very clear to me later on in my study that the students drew strength from being first generation."