For Lorena Bernal, becoming the first in her family to pursue a college degree wasn’t just her long-held dream — it also fulfilled one of her parents’ greatest hopes for their children.

“My parents emigrated from Mexico to provide better opportunities for my siblings [and me],” she says. “Attending college was also part of their dream and I was able to accomplish that.”

Earning a degree in sociology at California State University and a Masters in Social Work at the University of Southern California, Bernal says excitement outweighed nerves as she ventured into “the unknown.”

However, settling into college without being able to talk to someone at home who understood the experience came with its challenges.

Since no one else in my family had ever attended college, I had to navigate different aspects of college life on my own the application process, applying for financial aid, choosing which college to attend, purchasing books and supplies. My family also didn’t always understand that my focus and energy mainly went to school and it was hard when I couldn’t be around them as much as they wanted,” she says, adding this dynamic was exacerbated in grad school.

Going it Alone

For Lori Meono, being the first in her household to attend college meant she naturally felt pressure to succeed as the family’s trailblazer. While both her parents had successful media careers, she had witnessed the level of instability associated with having no academic qualifications, and her folks encouraged her to pursue higher study.

With no college-savvy parents to turn to … she signed up for 12 units. The problem? That put her on an unintended five-year plan.

Like Bernal, adjusting to campus life with no family members to turn to for tips or advice was tough, and during Meono’s first year as a psychology major at California State University, Northridge, she discovered she too had been ill-advised on which classes to take.

“I realized I wasn’t taking enough units to graduate in four years because nobody told me there was a minimum unit requirement,” she says. She had signed up for 15 units, but “my freshman year adviser said, ‘You don’t need 15, just take 12.’” With no college-savvy parents to turn to for a second opinion, she trusted the advice and signed up for 12 units. The problem? That put her on an unintended five-year plan. “To make up for it, I was taking 18 units, which was very overwhelming.”

Despite the setbacks, Meono, now 31, persevered and recalls the thrill of being the first person to earn a degree in her household. “This might sound really cheesy, but knowing that at the end of it all, I’d have that ‘Dr’ in my name was cool and kept me going.”

She graduated from Pepperdine University with a doctorate in psychology two years ago — and her family couldn’t be more thrilled. “My mom’s super-proud,” she says. “Even though it’s been two years, she’ll still be all cheesy about it, saying things like, ‘Oh, my Dr. Lori!’”

Coping with Doubt

Elia Maria Corrales meanwhile recalls crippling self-doubt as she entered Cerritos College with dreams of opening a psychology practice to serve the community she grew up in. “I wanted to become a psychologist, but I was very anxious that my parents’ old-fashioned ways would limit me and I couldn’t travel like I felt I needed to for my studies,” she says.

Corrales’ family “just assumed” that she would go to college because she was such a good student, though they lacked the money to help her, so she had to fund her studies on her own. Although she was excited about being a first-gen student, she says it would have been nice to have received more family support. “My dad never showed me he was proud or that he had faith I could do it, which hurt and made me doubt myself.”

Losing interest in her last semester, Corrales dropped out in 2001 but returned in 2009 and studied to become a Spanish medical interpreter. “I wish I had known it was okay to go back and start over, that even though life dealt me blows I could still get it done,” she says.

Finding a Support Network

With first-gen students making up a substantial portion of annual admissions, many universities have programs and initiatives to encourage and support these transitions.

Harvard University, where roughly 15% of those enrolled are first-gen students, offers the First Generation Program, focused on “directing college awareness to future first-generation college students.” The Texas A&M College of Engineering just launched a new initiative which pairs faculty and staff members (many of whom are first-gen graduates themselves) with first-gen students to guide their academic success. UCLA runs a First to Go program featuring events, an exclusive Facebook group and even an endorsement message from former US First Lady Michelle Obama.

Simon Jarratt/Corbis

At Pennsylvania State University, around one-third of attendees are first-gen scholars, and the school hosts panels by these students and has clubs dedicated to them. Clark Brigger, executive director for undergraduate admissions at Penn State, says students with no degrees in the family shouldn’t be deterred and may even find financial assistance available.

“Students should begin researching and visiting colleges or universities prior to the start of their senior year of high school,” Brigger advises, adding that joining college groups and clubs is also crucial. “A student should apply early and not exclude any college or university they’re interested in — some that may seem out of reach academically or financially are looking for first-generation students and have money to support these students.”