The Unexpected Trauma of Applying to College

April 20, 2016

I never realized how broken my life and family relationships were until I started to apply to college. Before I began the college application process, my everyday life seemed normal. I have a mother who loves me, a stable home and a supportive school community. I felt secure. That all changed when I begin to apply to college.

For any high school senior, applying to college comes with many emotions and challenges. The thought of making a mistake when deciding your future and where you want to spend the next years of your life can wreck your mind. We also may have dreams to go places that are beyond what’s possible. It can be overwhelming for one person to think through all of this alone, yet you are the one who must ultimately decide and live with the consequences of your decisions. For this reason, applying to college is a process that balances striving toward independence with seeking outside help.

Neither of my parents graduated from high school, and I will be the first in my family to attend college. For those of us who are the first-generation college students, the application process asks a lot of parents, and those requirements can bring on added pressure. In my case, it wasn't that my mother was unsupportive. It was just that she was unable to contribute to a process she's never experienced. When I asked her for advice, she had little to nothing to say. She was ready to be on board with anything. I can't help but worry: What if what I want is not what's best? After a while, I stopped asking my mother’s opinion. Now, I just tell her what my plan is because I know she doesn't want to have input and feel like she contributed to a wrong decision.

"When the college process demands more than a family can provide, it creates unexpected trauma for students: #firstgen" 

(click to tweet)

There are a lot of assumptions in the college process. One of the biggest assumptions is that students have the fortunate situation of having both parents in their life. Many of the students in my New York City public high school do not. Financial aid forms ask for justification of your family situation and proof that a non-custodial parent is unavailable to contribute to the cost of your education. For many students, this is extremely difficult. How are students expected to find, get in contact with, or get financial information from someone with whom they may not even remember their last conversation?

In my case, I live with my mother.  While I speak to and see my dad regularly, the college application process has created tension.  When I needed information from my dad—even something as simple as his birthday and social security number—it dug up family issues that were being avoided or hidden. In some cases, my asking for income documents and clarity on household information even caused altercations between my parents, who don’t speak much otherwise. It hurt me to feel like a burden to my family when I asked for basic details.

All I wanted to do was go to college, and I felt like no one in my home could help me financially or emotionally. There were times when I felt like giving up, but stopping was not an option.

This was a rigorous process, I had to sacrifice my lunch period during school, stay after school, work with many counselors and complete at least 8 scholarship applications which all required an abundance of writing.

Even now, with all my applications completed and sent in, the process is still taking an emotional toll. All I can do is wait.

I would tell other students in my situation to prepare themselves for the unexpected challenges they’ll face as they apply to college. I would tell parents to be available to listen to what their children are going through, even if they do not fully understand the process or do not feel confident about giving advice.  

Most of all, I would tell colleges to show some understanding for students whose families may not be whole. Reduce the paperwork burdens (as some colleges are doing) and offer more support to students in low-income and single-parent families. Leaving home and going to college is stressful enough. I don’t want other students to feel like their families are broken just because they can’t provide the particular level of support that the college application process demands.

janaisa walkerJanaisa Walker, SparkAction's 2016 Journalism and Advocacy Fellow, is the first member of her family to attend college. She is at Syracuse University, and expected to graduate in 2020.



Janaisa Walker

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The main idea of this story to me and which I feel was right on point and articulated very well, is how alone and stressful a child or young adult can be made to feel when they venture into unfamiliar territory.

Your first instinct is to seek out the advice of those around you, which can be more frustrating, because they can't offer you the advice or help you need cause they have no idea on the Journey you're about to take. Now you feel stress from putting your parent (s) in this position of feeling helpless, because all your life they've been there for you.

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First Generation college student here! Ms. Walker, well written piece. I'll skip to the good part and tell you what no knew to tell me.

1. First realize that bc youre in college you DESERVE to be there. The transition from exceptional high schooler and everyone supporting you, to college student with seemingly only your own will power propelling you forward can be draining to say the least. Don't psyche yourself out.

2. INTERNSHIPS. Yes, you may think that piece of paper will magically get you a job upon entry into the real world but the reality is you'll be competing with kids who's parents have connections and they will have experience upon graduation. Choose your major - whatever it is - and before the semester is out secure you an internship. Journalism? - hit up your local paper. Psychiatry - hospitals. And so on and so forth. Whatever you do - get an internship. Companies are always looking for free labor ;-)

3. Mentor. FIND A MENTOR. Weather it be your favorite professor. And upperclassmen who knows whats going on. Someone who can take you under the wing and STAY in your department counselors office.

4. Don't feel alone. We're out here (1st gen students) and we're making it happen (for the most part. lol). You can too! GOOD LUCK~

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What a courages and remarkable young lady you are Janaisa! My daughter is starting college at Carroll University, Wi in the fall. It is a private college and very expensive, but only 1 out of 9 colleges that offer her life's dream of studying Ethology.

I am a single parent, we have little money, and I have personally done hours and hours of research to be able to find funds to put her dream in motion. She has worked so very hard earning good grades, running a farm from 2:a.m.-6:a.m, coming home, showering, going to school until 2 pm, that directly back to the farm until 7 pm. She has earned an accademic scholarship of 65,000, but it only amounts to 15,000 per year. (The tuition alone is 30,00 per year).

She is determined and so am i. But like you stated, the paperwork alone is very stressful and is all new to me. My daughter is so busy that she cannot even catch a breath to look at all the documents. I know what my daughter and I have gone through and the many stressful hours as a team. I cannot even imagine the grit and fortitude you have exercised to bring your dream to reality.

What an inspiration you are. I will share this with my daughter, it will be good to know she is not alone in the stress and anxiety she is feeling. I can totally relate with your mother as well. What a sweet and gracious young woman you are in reaching out to others in your position. I wish you the very best and will always keep you in my prayers. Sandy Neville

A to you! Thankyou.

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