Mar 13, 2022

More Than Money: Supporting First-Gen and Low-Income Students

Last week, on the NGPF Speaker Series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Nichole Huff. She spoke about the role of trauma in dealing with money problems and she advocated for a trauma-informed and empathy-based approach to financial education.

This struck me because while many financial education programs teach about savings, loans, debt, and money management - trauma doesn’t usually come up. (If you missed the event, I highly recommend tuning into the rebroadcast on the NGPF Podcast here.)

That conversation got me thinking about my own experiences as one of the first in my family to attend and graduate college. For first-generation college students, particularly those from low-income communities, going off to college is a major accomplishment that opens the door to numerous other life-changing opportunities. Data shows that attending college is correlated with a healthier lifestyle and higher average salaries.

However, we don’t talk enough about the psychological challenges faced by first-gen students. This viral TikTok sums up some of those issues in a very vulnerable way.



Preparing students academically is simply one puzzle piece in a larger service that educators play a role in providing. But it doesn't end there - it cannot end there.

Students need to understand what to expect from college socially, financially and psychologically as well!

So, how can you address this in your classroom?

NGPF has some great activities to start with, including ROLEPLAY: Peer Pressure Meets College Finances and CREATE: A Monthly College Budget.

However, for a slightly less structured activity that promotes reflection and open dialogue, try sharing the viral TikTok with your students and use guiding questions to promote discussion, such as:

For each of the questions below, share as much as you feel comfortable sharing.

1) Do you or someone you know have concerns like the ones shared in this TikTok? How so? 

2) What parts of the TikTok video resonated with you the most? How about the least? Why?

3) What advice might you offer this TikTok creator to help them navigate the issues they shared?

4) Why do you think this creator was willing to be so vulnerable and honest? Are these types of conversations common or uncommon in your closest social relationships? (Family, friends, classmates, coworkers, mentors etc)


It may be helpful for your students to read this Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds post highlighting several of the challenges faced by first-gen students, including:

Psychological Challenges
a) Family conflicts and guilt. First-generation students often experience guilt over leaving their families and possibly their financial responsibilities at home. Many first-gen students feel badly that they have an opportunity other family members did not have, as well as guilt over feeling as though they are rejecting their past and community.

b) Shame. First-gen students commonly feel embarrassed, as though they are “imposters” on campus. Without long family traditions of going to college, this is common and understandable. However, this makes it harder for them to feel like they fit in with peers.

c) Confusion. First-gen students may be less knowledgeable about how to navigate the resources available to them, including healthcare options, work-study programs, internships, and counseling. Their peers who have family members that have attended college often get guidance from their parents or older siblings about these resources.

d) Anxiety. The college life experience is filled with excitement and enthusiasm, but it can also be laced with anxiety about academic achievement, social inclusion, and financial worries, such as paying back loans.

Academic Challenges
a) Arriving Prepared. Some first-gen students may come from less rigorous secondary schools or have lower scores on standardized tests. This can lead to them having less confidence in academics than their non-first-gen peers.

b) Difficulty Navigating the Academic System. The academic system can be overwhelming and complex. First-gen students often have difficulty dealing with bureaucracy. They can also have difficulty finding mentors. Mentors are particularly important, as they serve to support students and help them navigate the system. First-gen students can’t rely on hearing about the college experience of their parents or other family members to help them face these barriers, as other students often do.

Financial Concerns
a) Lower Family Income. First-gen students may come from families that have less income than other students. As such, they may need larger loans and scholarships. In addition, they may have to take on jobs during college in order to meet their financial obligations, which can contribute to greater stress and take time away from their school work. Data show that financial burdens are the primary reason first-gen students leave school.

Social Challenges
a) Greater Social Isolation. The feelings of insecurity and fear about acceptance may result in isolation among first-gen students. Fewer available financial resources may limit their ability to participate in campus-based social events and remote opportunities, such as spring break, which adds to the feeling of isolation.

b) Stigma and Discrimination. Racial or ethnic minority groups make up more than a third of first-gen students. As such, they have to overcome racial disparities and discrimination. They may be the targets of prejudice in reference to both their minority status and lower socio-economic status. These experiences can lead to alienation, isolation, marginalization, and loneliness, which can negatively impact their mental health and academic performance.


These discussions are great for first-gen and low-income students who may relate to the topic personally, while also helping students who don't necessarily identify with these issues. Providing this context is especially helpful for students who don’t have this experience because it encourages them to be empathetic and seek to understand.

You might even consider assigning a post-discussion activity, such as:

1) Write a thank-you note to those who have helped you along your path (parents, family, friends, teachers, coaches, mentors etc)

2) Write a letter to your future self about your feelings and reflections about these challenges that overlap between our financial and mental health

3) Create your own TikTok in response or summarizing your thoughts/feelings about moving beyond high school onto college or into the workforce

4) Read this NY Times article and generate a list of questions of your own

5) Interview 1-2 adults in your life regarding: “Top things you wish you knew before turning 18”


If you choose to have this discussion with your students, please share a note about the outcome in NGPF's FinLit Fanatics community! We’d love to hear from you about how your students responded.


Additional resources that may be of interest: 

-Millennial and Gen Z Survey

-Teen Vogue: How Financial Stress Is Impacting Young People's Mental Health

-Supporting First-Generation and Low-Income Students Beyond the College Acceptance Letter


About the Author

Yanely Espinal

Born and raised by Dominican, immigrant parents in Brooklyn, Yanely is a proud product of NYC public schools. She graduated from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in 2007 before going on to receive her bachelor's degree at Brown University in 2011. As a Teach For America corps member, Yanely taught third and fourth grade in Canarsie, Brooklyn. She received her master's degree from Relay Graduate School of Education in 2013. She spends her spare time making YouTube videos about personal finance on her channel, MissBeHelpful. Yanely also loves to dance, sew, paint, listen to podcasts, and babysit her soon-to-be 7 nieces and nephews!

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