First-Generation Nursing Students Challenges & How to Overcome Them

Meg Lambrych, RN-BC
Updated September 27, 2023
    First-generation nursing students face obstacles in the nursing education journey that other students do not. Keep reading to learn four common struggles experienced by first-generation students, and four ways to overcome them.
    Two nursing students studying together in a libraryCredit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
    • First-generation students take on more debt, have lower graduation rates, and need help navigating the confusing bureaucracy of higher education more than their continuing-generation counterparts.
    • First-generation nursing students face unique challenges independent of family income.
    • It’s essential for these students to understand their resources and use them to overcome the obstacles they will face in nursing school.

    First-generation nursing students come from many different backgrounds and cultures. While first-generation is not synonymous with low income, many of these students tend to be from lower-income families, according to the Brookings Institution. This fact often contributes to the difficulties they face navigating higher education.

    With the need for diversity in the nursing profession more pressing than ever, first-generation nursing students must prepare for the challenges they will face and empower themselves by understanding the tools and resources available.

    If you’re a first-generation nursing student, learn what challenges to expect in nursing school and how to overcome them.

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    Unique Challenges Faced by First-Generation Nursing Students

    Nursing school is notoriously difficult, and being a first-generation college student can add to that. While the experiences of first-generation students are not the same, they may share common obstacles when applying to and attending nursing school.

    Difficulty Navigating the College System

    If your parents (and their parents) are college graduates, you have some framework of knowledge for what to expect with the college admissions process. First-generation students, however, don’t have that luxury.

    This makes applying for and attending nursing school all the more stressful. Higher education is a massive web of frustrating bureaucracy that can be difficult to navigate under the best circumstances — one missing form or typo can have major consequences.

    First-generation nursing students must learn every single step of the process from scratch throughout their college experience. They’re left to navigate tricky situations like issues with paperwork or dealing with a difficult nursing professor alone. This adds a significant amount of stress and mental load for these students.

    Less Financial Support

    The Brookings Institution highlights additional financial challenges first-generation students may face compared to non-first-generation students:

    • They tend to come from lower-income households.
    • They may take on more student loans and have lower graduation rates.
    • They don’t always receive as much financial aid as their peers.
    • They are more likely to have a job during school than their peers.

    Nursing students face even more financial pressure than students in other degree programs due to the cost of uniforms, books, clinical tools, lab fees, and NCLEX fees after graduation.

    The Pressure of Being First

    If you’re the first person in your family to go to nursing school, chances are that many people are proud of you. They may also be counting on you to succeed.

    Depending on your culture and relationship with your family, their deep love and pride may add additional pressure on you to succeed. Especially, if other people sacrificed for you to get there or if you are financially responsible for others.

    Being the first in a family to go to college and climb the career ladder can be a significant burden.

    Lack of Community

    Because of these additional financial obstacles and the lack of information, first-generation nursing students are more likely to hold down a job — or several — throughout school to make ends meet.

    This can have dire repercussions for their academic performance and social life. The added stress and logistics of struggling to pay the bills and keep up with nursing school requirements can leave students feeling isolated.

    It can be hard to connect with your peers if you’re the only one worried about money or always working. These different financial realities and cultures can make it even harder for first-generation students to connect with peers and find community support.

    How First-Generation Nursing Students Can Overcome Challenges

    First-generation nursing students may face many hurdles in nursing school, but they can thrive with the right resources and support.

    We spoke with Jada Sims, a first-generation nursing student who graduated in 2020 and has a successful career in critical care. She is also earning her master’s degree.

    Sims credits her positive experience to her highly-supportive program that helped to facilitate connections between first-generation students and mentors who supported her along the way.

    Know Your Resources and Ask Questions

    Sims acknowledges that nursing school is different for first-generation students and encourages students to use their resources and ask questions often:

    [My school] offered a summer academy, which was a five-day program that targeted first-gen [first-year students] to help them to transition to college life,” she says.

    By connecting with additional resources early in the program, Sims believes she was primed for success and had a better experience than those who did not take advantage of the program.

    Most nursing programs have a variety of resources, including dedicated academic advisors, tutoring services, and peer mentoring programs. Sims encourages first-generation students to take advantage of all of the resources offered to you, and don’t wait until you’re struggling to ask for help.

    Look for Scholarships and Grants

    The financial obstacles for many first-generation nursing students are significant, so you want all the help you can get.

    Numerous scholarships are available to nursing students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds (and many first-generation students also come from those communities).

    While searching and applying for scholarships and grants is time-consuming and labor intensive, the payoff for first-generation nursing students can be worth it.

    Embrace Your Unique Journey

    Sims recalls the difficulty of navigating nursing school as a first-generation student, but she found support through community with her first-generation peers.

    “My school had the University Success Scholars, a club that met monthly to connect first-gen students. Each meeting had a different topic to gain more information, and we even got a gift card to use for textbooks,” she shares.

    The pressure of being the first person in your family to attend college can lead to stress and anxiety. Remember that you proudly represent your community and family, but you’re also an individual.

    You are one person doing your best to navigate a complex system without many of the privileges your peers enjoy.

    Sims shares, “Be willing to fail but do not dwell on it, use your failures to inspire you to be better.

    Find a Mentor

    Lastly, remember that many first-generation nursing students have walked this path before you. Nursing school is tough under the best circumstances, so take every opportunity to build connections with others who can offer your wisdom and support during the hard times.

    A mentor provides guidance and emotional support, regardless of their formal title. It can be a professor, an advisor, or a nurse who is farther down the career path than you.

    “You are not always going to know the answers, so find a mentor to help you along the way,” Sims says.

    The most important thing about choosing a mentor as a first-generation nursing student is finding someone who can see and appreciate you as a whole person and acknowledges your complete identity, culture, and struggles.

    Meet Our Contributor

    Portrait of Jada Sims BSN, RN

    Jada Sims BSN, RN

    Jada Sims is a first-generation BSN-prepared nurse with the majority of her patient care experience in the critical care setting. Jada enjoys giving back to the community and has been awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Saint Francis in the Fall of 2021. Jada’s desire to work in quality improvement and further develop the future generations of nurses has led her to pursue her MSN in nursing administration. In addition to focusing on her career ambitions, she enjoys traveling, spending time with family, reading, and volunteering.