Guilt About Succeeding: A Dilemma for Some First Generation College Students

Some time ago I wrote an article entitled, Survivor Guilt in the University Setting (Personnel & Guidance Journal, 1983, 61, 620-622) about the difficulties first generation and low-income students have in navigating the university environment.

As you well know, it is hard to figure out the lay of the land when you don’t have a roadmap, which would include directions about where to get help if you need it. Having no one around to act as a tour guide makes it stressful to figure out things totally on your own. Since your family did not go to college, they’re unable to share your experiences or provide any perspective about what you’re going through.

As a result, you may feel very alone in your family, especially when other family members are trying to cope with major life crises, such as unemployment, unpaid bills, and/or depression, while you’re hoping to pass an Algebra final.

Trying to succeed academically when other members of your family are struggling
in life may leave you wondering what makes you so special
and you may feel guilty for trying to get ahead.

Then, too, their lack of understanding sometimes gets translated into that frequently-heard remark, “So, you think you’re too good for us!," which leaves you wondering if there’s something wrong with you for trying to succeed in life when others around you are failing. “Am I too self-centered or not caring enough?,” you may ask yourself.

Whenever you’re conflicted about what you’re doing and/or feel badly about your family’s life situation, it’s difficult to concentrate on college. As you sit down at your desk to read an assignment, you may find your mind wandering off to other scenes, such as your mother’s bipolar disorder or your sister’s boyfriend’s encounters with the law. You may think about your father’s excessive drinking or your grandmother’s failing health.

It is difficult to put family problems out of your mind until you decide
what you can do realistically to change another person’s reality.

You may be able to drive a family member to a doctor’s appointment or tell your brother about a job, but you can’t cure their cancer nor provide them with employment. You can tell your uncle or your dad about AA but you can’t make him attend a meeting nor stop his drinking. The old adage, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” is as true today as it was when it was formulated years ago.

Your responsibility as a human being is to develop and utilize your God-given talents. While care and consideration towards your family is important, you need not (nor should you) sacrifice your own legitimate goals for others.

If you do sacrifice yourself for your family, you may grow to resent them,
forever feel deprived of a golden opportunity, and/or grow bitter
and envious of your more successful friends.

While there are some extreme circumstances that may necessitate the temporary suspension of your academic journey, it is important that your self-sacrifice lasts only as long as the family crisis.

Ultimately, finishing college will benefit your family in several ways . You’ll be able to support yourself with a decent-paying job and not be a burden on them. You may even be able to provide for them in some measure when you’re finished with your own schooling. Finally, whether they admit it or not, you can be a role model and an inspiration to them, thereby demonstrating that academic success is a reliable pathway to a fulfilling life.

As you work toward your goals in college, understand that you may have a challenging path ahead of you. Remember that you’re not the only one who feels conflicted, and help from your college counseling center is just around the corner if you need it. Know that you are unique as your family’s college pioneer. Remember that it’s not selfish to focus in the short term on your own academic goals.

At the end of the day, realizing your academic dreams
will help you and your family get to a better place.

I’m Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist who has been practicing psychology in a variety of settings for over 50 years. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers (Roosevelt University, Chicago; and the University of Illinois at Chicago), where I worked with college students, many of whom were the first in their families to go to college.

In addition to my work in university counseling centers, I was Chair of the Psychology Department at Roosevelt University, and Supervising Psychologist in several medical schools, psychiatric hospitals, and mental health clinics over the years. I am also the author of two books on romantic love; Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy; and Adult Children of Divorce: Confused Love Seekers. Since leaving the university setting in 2001, I have been in private practice seeing clients, most of whom are successful professionals but are struggling with some aspect of their personal lives.

I was the first in my family to go to college.


Geraldine K. Piorkowski, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Advisory Board Member, Propeller Collective
Survivor Guilt in the University Setting