Becoming a Nurse as a First Generation College Student

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Published February 15, 2023

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Discover what it takes to become a nurse as a first gen college student.
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Are you a first generation nursing student? As the very first member of a family to enter college, you can face significant challenges because of the rigorous nature of nursing education and the complex aspects of being a first gen student.

Being a first gen student may be challenging, but there are plenty of good reasons to work hard and overcome obstacles to become a highly valued registered nurse (RN).

Learn what first gen nursing students can expect in school, including tips on studying and time management. Find out about taking the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), getting licensed and launching your new career, prioritizing self-care, and advancing your nursing career to the next level.

For more information on how to apply to a nursing program and secure financial assistance, see our guide to Applying to Nursing School as a First-Generation Nursing Student.

Passing Your Classes

As the first member of your family to attend college, you may face specific challenges that other students may or may not encounter, or at least not to the same degree:

  • Financial strain, perhaps due to multigenerational low-income households (first-gen students have been shown to receive less financial aid than other students)
  • Insufficient support, understanding, and guidance from parents or guardians unfamiliar with the realities of higher education
  • Lack of family role models with experience in higher education
  • Impostor syndrome, social isolation at school, and feeling like you don't belong
  • Not being academically prepared for the difficulty of nursing school
  • Lack of access to technology or a personal computer

If you're a member of an immigrant family where you’re relied on for financial contributions to the household, time management as a nursing student may be a concern. And if you have younger siblings or elderly parents or guardians to look after, that can also hijack your study time. Blocking out certain hours for studying and batching similar tasks together are two strategies that may increase your success. If you come from a family lacking computer literacy or the understanding of how online learning works, or even its value, your need to study or take classes online and your desire for quiet or privacy may not be fully respected. Study tips for online nursing education can help you to stay ahead of the game.

Classes You Can Expect to Take in Nursing School

Nursing students must pass a number of prerequisite classes for nursing school:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Biology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • English composition
  • Human growth and development
  • Psychology
  • Statistics

Common nursing courses during your nursing program include:

  • Nursing fundamentals
  • Pathophysiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Gerontology
  • Psych/mental health
  • Ethics
  • Leadership
  • Women and infant health
  • Pediatrics
  • Microbiology
  • Population/community health

Pathophysiology and pharmacology are likely two of the most difficult nursing courses for the majority of students. Clinical assignments offer hands-on training in patient care that every nursing student must master, and these can include medical-surgical, oncology, orthopedics, home health, trauma, and cardiac nursing.

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Getting Your Nursing License

Once you graduate from nursing school, your next task is to become a licensed RN. Understanding the NCLEX examination is crucial, and your nursing program hopefully prepares you well for this high-stakes exam.

Every new nursing graduate clearly wants to master the NCLEX the first time, and there are numerous NCLEX exam resources for preparing in an organized, comprehensive way.

Each state and U.S. territory has its own board of nursing responsible for overseeing professional licensure. While state licensing regulations may be similar, differences exist, including, but not limited to:

  • The cost of application
  • Wait times for receiving your license
  • Continuing education requirements
  • The renewal process

Some nursing graduates may not be familiar with the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), an agreement where nurses have the freedom to practice in a majority of states without maintaining multiple licenses.

There are fewer and fewer non-NLC states, with some states being in the process of passing or enacting NLC-related legislation. A multistate license can open many doors for nurses who live near a state border or who wish to have the freedom to travel and work according to their chosen career goals and lifestyle.

Starting Your Career as a Nurse

Launching your nursing career after being a first generation college student is an accomplishment to be proud of. To get to this point, you must overcome many obstacles and challenges, coming out on the other side with clinical training, a professional license, and an exciting career ahead of you.

In this section, we discuss finding your first job, prioritizing self-care, and strategies for advancing your career as you move from novice to seasoned nurse.

Finding Your First Job

As a new grad nurse who has passed the NCLEX and become licensed, you have another task ahead of you: finding your first nursing job.

As a first gen nurse, you may have family obligations preventing you from taking advantage of career opportunities in other states that your peers are free to explore. If your parents or guardians and family members have not pursued professional careers, they may not understand the importance of a resume for nurses and how to advise you on how to write a nursing resume. They may also not have experience with the nursing job interview process, so do your homework, practice with a nursing peer, or hire a career coach to help you put your best foot forward.

In finding a job as a new nursing school grad, your family may have strong opinions about where you should work or what kind of nursing specialty you should pursue. There may also be pressure to bring home as much money as possible as quickly as possible.

They may not understand the career "dues" you might need to pay to earn a more highly competitive salary down the road, and they may disagree with your idea of the best nursing specialty to pursue.

There are many specialty career paths to explore, and you definitely want to choose something that holds interest for you and that you'll enjoy. Hospitals and employers are not created equal in terms of quality of work environment, so doing your research on the best hospitals and facilities will help guide your job search.

When comparing potential employers, be sure to ask about the benefits they offer. Some employers may provide tuition reimbursement or loan forgiveness for new nurses.

Prioritizing Self-Care

Nursing school is a stressful yet rewarding experience that results in your ability to become a licensed nurse and healthcare professional. In light of the potential for stress, maintaining self-care throughout your education and your nursing career is crucial. Self-care can come in many forms.

Burnout can occur at any point during your education or your professional career, so learning to deal with nurse burnout is an important skill. Maintaining professional nursing relationships are an excellent source of support at any point, and building a robust professional nursing network is a part of that process. Finding a nursing mentor can be a game-changing experience by providing you with the insight and expertise of a more accomplished colleague; serving as a mentor yourself can also foster positive relationships. As a first gen student, your family may not have much to offer in terms of advice on the concepts of mentoring, networking, and burnout.

New nurses can face experiences that are difficult to navigate, including stress management as a nurse, coping with the death of a patient, nurse-on-nurse bullying and incivility, and pre and postshift anxiety.

Finally, learning how to advocate for yourself as a new nurse in the workplace and how to cope with making mistakes as a nurse are other important skills to develop.

Self-care is an ongoing and evolving process, not a one-time or one-size-fits-all endeavor. Be patient and compassionate with yourself. Turn to peers and colleagues for support, especially if your family isn't quite sure how to help you.

Advancing Your Career

Moving your nursing career forward is an exciting lifelong process, and career development can look different for every nurse. Nursing offers an enormous array of potential career paths and roads to career advancement, including both clinical and nonclinical roles.

  • Nonhospital Jobs

    Stop your average person on the street and ask them what a nurse does, and most would say that nurses take care of sick people in hospitals (your family may think along these same lines). However, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), about 55% of nurses work in hospitals. Therefore, the other 45% do something entirely different.

    There are numerous nonhospital jobs to choose from in nursing, and when you consider the many possibilities, your nursing career can become an extremely interesting adventure.

  • Pursue a New Nursing Specialty

    Even if you choose to work in a hospital for a few years — or many years — the potential to pursue a new specialty is always there. A nursing license is your ticket to countless opportunities, and networking with nurses who practice in other specialty areas can be part of your professional development strategy.

    Not all nursing specialties involve the need to become certified; in fact, some specialties require that you accumulate hundreds of hours of clinical time in that practice area before you can apply for certification.

    Once certified, you are clearly demonstrating your commitment to learning, professional advancement, and nursing expertise.

  • Seeking a Higher Salary or Promotion

    Advancing your nursing career can involve negotiating a higher nursing salary, requesting a promotion, or applying for positions of leadership. Taking on more responsibility and proving your value can speak volumes about who you are as a professional.

  • Volunteer

    You can volunteer within your workplace for special committees, projects, or initiatives, (e.g., becoming an electronic health record super-user, preceptor, or mentor). You can also volunteer for organizations outside of work as a way to meet people, network, and be exposed to other opportunities.

  • Seeking Higher Education

    Your nursing career can benefit from pursuing further education, which might entail earning a master's in nursing or even a doctorate. Higher credentials often translate into opportunities, promotions, increased pay, professional recognition, and further specialization.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Nurse

Why is the first year of nursing so hard?

The first year of nursing can be difficult because you're trying to take everything you learned in school and apply it in the real world. As a first gen nurse, your family may not appreciate the challenges of starting a new professional career, so you may need to educate them about what it's like to be a new nurse.

Which semester of nursing school is the hardest?

The hardest semester of nursing school all depends on the student. The first semester can be hard for many people because you're learning numerous new concepts at the same time, including your first clinical experiences as a student nurse. Nursing school is rigorous, and it can take all of your powers of concentration, organization, and focus to stay on track, no matter the semester.

What is the most important class in nursing school?

There is no one class that's the most important. Every step of the nursing school experience builds on previous steps. While pathophysiology and pharmacology can be the most difficult classes for many students, every class holds important keys to success as a nursing professional.

How many hours a day should a nursing student study?

Some students can study very efficiently, while others seem to need to study for twice as long. Every student has their own learning style. Some students are great at memorization, some are excellent test-takers, and others are at their best during clinical assignments. The quality of your study time and your study habits are likely more important than the number of hours that you spend hitting the books.


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Page last reviewed February 11, 2023

NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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