A New Setting: Advice from a First-Generation College Student - Montreat College

Written by Tyler Lee

Recently, I sat down with Cody Penland, a history major at Montreat College, to talk about what it means to be a first-generation college student. A 2001 NCES study shows that while only 54% of students whose parents have only completed high school attend college, 82% of non-first-generation students attend college. This reality can make being the first in your family to attend college very daunting. Listen to Cody’s story and the helpful advice he provides for first-generation students as they head to college.

Tyler Lee: What does it mean to be a first-generation college student?

Cody Penland: About 30% of incoming freshmen are first-generation students. Essentially what that means for me is that nobody in my family has ever gone to college, as far as a four-year school; I’m the first in my family to do that.

Why did you decide to be the first in your family to go to college?

I think it was a mutual decision between me and my parents. I had been working at the time because my stepfather had just been laid off. We got back on our feet financially and they wanted me to go to school. It’s always been a desire for me to learn as much as I can. Plus, in this economy, you do have to get a higher degree if you want to live well. It’s not that I don’t want to work hard, but I don’t want to kill myself for minimum wage like I saw my parents do.

On that note, how did you end up at Montreat?

I grew up in a little village called Nebo, North Carolina. I’ve always known about Montreat. Honestly, the reason I applied at first was that if my parents were financially unstable again, I could easily just go home and get back to work.

Were you initially nervous coming into college and being the first in your family?

The thing is, I went to an early college in high school. I was already taking college classes. My sister did too; she got her associate degree in high school and stopped there. She’s still at the technical community college back home. I took my first college class when I was 14, so I’ve always been used to that sort of environment, but there was still some structure on top of it. The thing that made me nervous was making new friends and doing college without the structure of high school supporting that, being accountable for my own attendance.

How would you describe your college experience thus far?

It’s been life-changing, learning to be more independent. I went from not really talking to people my first year here to being a residence assistant and being more active in lacrosse, actually getting to know people and gaining friends. Getting a call to ministry last May was also huge for me; that changed the complexion of my life and what I want to do with it. That stuff alone is life-changing.

Have there been any troubles or difficulties with being a first-generation college student, especially coming into college?

At the early college, we had a senior seminar where they tried to explain to us how financial stuff and student life work. It did not prepare me at all for college. As far as fears coming in, I’m shy, so making friends and being involved was a difficulty. I’ve never had a problem with my academic life; I like to think I’ve done really well in school, but there has to be a balance between your academics, your social life, and your spiritual life. At first, I didn’t have that. That’s been a struggle continuously, but I think that’s why I’m here—to learn to balance all the things in life.

How do you think colleges should help first-generation college students? How do you think Montreat helps first-generation college students?

It doesn’t offend me when people ask if I’m a first-generation student; I think that needs to be talked about. There needs to be a set time where they get first-generation students and go through the process. That’s crucial because a lot of people back home don’t even think about college; that’s not everywhere, but those places do exist. For the achieving student who was in a trailer and is trying to make ends meet, they’re not thinking about post-secondary school. You’re going from a high school setting where there’s a lot of structure to being on your own and accountable for your own class attendance and all that you do, inside the dorms and outside the dorms. It’s all on your shoulders now, and for some students that might be kind of strange. I think Montreat’s trying to take a step in that direction because they’ve realized how many first-generation college students are coming in; they want to address that. I think that’s a great thing because once we get students that are more comfortable coming in, nobody’s going to look at them and think “Well, they’re a first generation student. They’ve never had this background and that’s why they’re not succeeding.” It’s a level playing field. I also think that if other schools had panels like Montreat’s “First Generation College Student Panel” last semester, it would be really helpful for schools across the board.

What would you recommend for incoming students who are first-generation college students?

Don’t let the word “college” intimidate you. For me, I always wanted to go to college but I didn’t expect to go. I think society puts this image in your head that college is supposed to be either hard or all party. First-generation students usually either hit one or the other; it’s either going to be nonsense or really serious, and I think both of those things are unhealthy. I would recommend not having opinions about this before you come in. Just be yourself and do what you’ve done best in school. This is the first chapter of stepping into your adult life. Don’t be intimidated; have fun with it. College is a great opportunity, so take full advantage of it, do well in school, get your degree, and make friends.