Navigating Graduate School as a First-Generation Student


Last week, the Office of Student Life hosted a first-generation graduate panel with a diverse group of first-gen students as panelists. The event gave other students and staff the opportunity to hear from their stories and experiences on what it means to be a first-generation graduate student. More than anything, it was an opportunity to begin creating a community and identifying a few strategies needed to navigate academia and higher education.

As a first-generation graduate student, I understand the challenges and struggles that come with navigating graduate school. Often times, people tend to assume that if someone makes it successfully through their undergraduate degree, they will make it through graduate school at a “level playing field”. From experience, I know this is not true. 

Therefore, we want to share with you some of the key strategies identified during our panel discussion that are part of the graduate school hidden curriculum:

1. Identify mentors: As we mentioned last week in our mentorship blog post, academia can be very difficult to navigate without the proper training and guidance. Identify potential mentors among faculty, staff and/or student body that can help you through your professional and personal development. 

2. Connect with local and campus resources: There are many organizations at JHSPH that aim to support minority groups across campus. In addition, Source, JHSAP, and the Office of Student Life provide resources to help students and trainees navigate, academic, personal, and professional environments. 

3. Create a community and support network: One of my main fears moving across the country and starting graduate school was that I would not find a “community”. Thankfully, I was wrong. Finding faculty that can support you within your department and other departments, is key to your success in graduate school. Also, finding friends that you can count on not just for studying. Graduate school can become very lonely, you will need cheerleaders and sometimes you will play the cheerleader role. 

4. Remember your support system back home: As first-generation students, we’re the first to navigate these spaces. However, it doesn’t mean that you have to take all the weight on your shoulders. Although my mom doesn’t really understand my research on macrophages, she’s always cheering me from far away and understands when I’m having a hard time. Know that your family, friends, and former mentors from back home are only a text, call, or email away.

You got this! You did not get this far to only make it this far.

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