Lessons from a First-Generation College Student

Updated: September 2, 2020

By Johnnie Pope
Intern Program Manager, Discovery, Inc.


Life has a funny way of bringing things full circle. I am sitting here, writing this article, just a few days after receiving my MBA in Human Resource Management. While I am excited to add that achievement to my resume, the road to graduation as a first-generation college student was full of twists and turns. 

My college career started at a wonderful historically black college called Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. At the time, everything seemed so simple. I was excited that my bucket list was becoming a reality: Get accepted to a university, play basketball, join a fraternity, and complete my degree. But there were a lot of challenges I hadn’t anticipated. 

While other students have family members to serve as examples and teach them the ropes, that’s hardly the case within my demographic. Going to college is not just business as usual. The weight of attending college, bringing honor to your family, and giving back to where you come from all create a different type of pressure. Let me also add that I turned 18 just a month shy of completing my fall semester. Honestly, it was all a bit overwhelming, from correctly handling financial aid to understanding the resources available to help me succeed on campus. 

It’s not uncommon for first-generation college students to drop out. And I did! I dropped out after my first year, and I did not confidently pursue my bachelor’s degree until 10 years later. Regardless of that fact, I did it, and I pursued graduate school as well. Then, I made a promise that if I could help others, I would. That was my muse, and it’s still a driving factor in my life. It’s why I’m an intern program manager, and it’s why I love working with college students today. 

When I encounter first-generation students, I tell my story. I let them know, “Hey! I understand.” And, most importantly, I share some of the lessons below. 


Leverage partnerships 

Many years ago, I stumbled across a beautiful proverb that is something I still abide by today. The proverb simply states, “If you have the right relationships, you’re wealthy.” No one ever achieves anything alone; somebody helped you along the way. 

In addition to tried-and-true support structures, there are a number of programs specifically intended to help first-generation college students. If you know the type of industry you’d like to work in, that’s even better. Industry-specific partnerships are available, too. The best part is that most, if not all, of the programs look to connect with students prior to starting the college admission process, with many of them cultivating relationships as early as a student’s junior year of high school. 

As a first-generation college student, I often do speaking engagements, and my audience ranges from middle school to graduate students. During these talks, I always share resources that are available. I’d like to give a shout-out to one of my favorite partners, the T. Howard Foundation. It’s a D.C.-based nonprofit, focused on promoting diversity and inclusion in the media industry. Students get exposed to powerhouse media companies, like Discovery, Inc., through potential internships, and they can also find mentors, connect with a robust alumni network, and access funds for expenses. It’s one of many resources that creates an accountability system for students. 


Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships!

First-generation college students often lack the family financial support that other students may have access to. Tuition is the most expensive part of college, but additional fees can add up, and financial aid often isn’t enough. Luckily, there are scholarships to help offset the expense of going to college. These scholarships aim to give each student the chance to have real success and overcome barriers. To make it easy, I thought it best to add some helpful links here.


The Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund

Our first featured scholarship is from Entertainer, CEO, and Philanthropist Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. One of the reasons I want to highlight this scholarship is because it’s important to feature creators that come from the same underprivileged backgrounds as the students they’re supporting.

  • Minimum 2.0 GPA
  • US resident 
  • Eligibility groups include high school seniors, GED recipients, and undergraduate college students
  • Available grants up to $7,500 


TELACU College Success Program

The second option is The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU). TELACU has been a key player in the fight for underrepresented student success since 1983 through college success programs. Additionally, the organization has been a vital partner in building underserved communities since the 1960’s, with funding from Robert Kennedy. 

  • 2.5 GPA
  • Enrolled incoming freshman 
  • Resources include scholarships, workshops, career guidance, internships, and tutoring 


Both are great resources. Before I wrap up, I want to insert a shameless plug: If you would like to learn more about resources for first-generation college students, connect with me by sending a message on LinkedIn.