Ingrid Ortega wasn’t sure what her first semester at IUPUI would hold. While many freshmen share similar feelings of stress, this Public Safety Management major had an extra layer of anxiety. Ortega is the first in her family to attend college.
“College isn’t easy for anyone, but I wish people understood how scary it can be for someone who has absolutely no idea what they’re doing and barely anyone to help them,” she says. “I wish people knew that it’s a struggle, but we’re trying our best. For most first-generation students, simply going to college is a huge success.”
Students are considered first-generation if they are the first in their family to attend college, if their parents didn’t graduate with a bachelor’s degree, or if they have siblings in college but their parents don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
Ortega knows the success of attending college isn’t just her own—it’s also her family’s success. She says they have been extremely encouraging and supportive. In fact, they’re a big part of her motivation to graduate.
“I want to be able to give back to my parents because they worked so hard for so long to support me and my siblings,” Ortega says. “As the first-born, I also want to set a good example for my younger siblings.”
By attending IUPUI, Ortega is changing her family’s path for generations to come. But without first-hand college experience at home, she knew she would have to overcome additional barriers that other students don’t face.
“I think the most common obstacle for first-generation students is being clueless about higher education,” Ortega admits. “Everything is difficult and seems tricky and we don’t have anyone in our family to help guide us.”
IUPUI and the O’Neill School are working to address those needs. The university launched a website dedicated to serving and celebrating this unique group of students. One way is by actively ensuring first-gen students are aware of the resources available to them.
“I didn’t even know about the 21st Century Scholars program, so I never applied,” she says. “Once I learned about it, I told my sister to apply before it was too late. That is one of the positives about coming first: I get to help my siblings with the things that no one could help me with.”
Ortega soon found the information—and the people—she needed. She credits new friends with helping her conquer fears, form a support network, and figure out the complexities of college. She says a strong support system is critical for any first-gen student, as is taking time for self-care to avoid burnout.
But Ortega has an even more important message of encouragement for future first-gen students.
“I would tell them to not be afraid, to go ahead and be the person they’ve always wanted to be,” she says. “That may take time and that’s okay. Sometimes that’s a journey that lasts a lifetime, and that’s also okay. I was such a quiet kid in high school. I was afraid to be myself and try out for the things I wanted, but that changed in college. I made some really amazing friends and that’s all I need.”