Aug. 21, 2023

Academic Triumphs and Challenges

Tales of First-in-Family Students in Canada
Two first-in-family students standing in front of trees on the university campus

We spoke to two first-in-family students, Aayushmathi and Safia, about how they navigated life in a new country. Aayushmathi is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in Astrophysics, and Safia is a graduate student in Biomedical Engineering specializing in Medical Imaging. Here is what they had to say.

What is one resource you wish you knew in your first year as a university student in Canada?

Aayushmathi: “I wish I knew how resourceful office hours can be. Instructors are very knowledgeable, and it may be intimidating to meet one-on-one with them, but it gets easier after your first meeting. Most instructors are willing to help you understand a concept better, provide hints for that question you’ve been stuck on for days, or offer general guidance about your career. I’ve chatted with a professor about graduate school options and the best dog breeds in the same half hour. It can be very fun!”

Safia: “I wish I had known about the benefits of mentorship programs at the university. When I joined the international student mentorship program in my second year, I realized how helpful it was. As a mentor, I assisted three mentees in adjusting to university life in Calgary. It felt like chatting with a friend, and I noticed that although they were nervous at first, they became more comfortable and reached out to me with questions. This resource is particularly valuable for international students as it allows them to connect with someone even before arriving in Canada. Mentors genuinely want to make things easier for you, so feeling nervous is okay!”

How did your university experience differ from what you expected, and what did you learn from those differences?

Aayushmathi: “I was pleasantly surprised by how far self-advocacy can get you. I was greeted by a welcoming faculty that was ready to listen to my concerns and accommodate them whenever possible. I was worried that I would have to push through my assignments alone but I’m fortunate to be in a degree that fosters collaboration with peers and professors, who are eager to help.”

Safia: “My university experience differed from my expectations, especially in terms of academic demands. I took on three courses and a teaching assistant position in my first semester, assuming it would be manageable. However, I quickly realized that university-level coursework required more self-discipline and time management than I had anticipated. Balancing coursework and teaching proved challenging. Through trial and error, I learned the importance of setting priorities, being realistic with goals, and developing effective study habits. These experiences taught me valuable time management and self-motivation lessons that have positively influenced various aspects of my life.”

Is there anything you regret or wish you had done differently as a first-in-family student in Canada?

Aayushmathi: “I’ve let many opportunities slip away because of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. I regret not looking for summer research after my second year because I thought I did not deserve it. I’ve since learned that most professors are willing to give the eager second-year student a chance even if they only have beginner-level skills. Even if you get rejected, you now know what you need to work on, and you have a fast-track route to a summer studentship next year! Always remember that your efforts are valuable, and you should challenge any thoughts that make you feel as if you don’t belong.”

Safia: "Looking back as a first-in-family student in Canada, there is one thing I wish I had done differently— I wish I had spoken up more often. Being naturally shy, expressing my thoughts in class or with my lab colleagues was difficult. However, as time went on, something changed. When I started discussing my research, I realized that people were genuinely impressed by it. This boosted my confidence and made me realize that being shy is okay. However, having a positive mindset is crucial. Learning and gaining confidence is a process, and it is different for everyone."

What advice would you give to other first-in-family students in Canada based on your experiences?

Aayushmathi: “As a first-in-family student, you don’t have a family member to show you the ways. However, you will quickly realize everyone in the university is probably just as overwhelmed as you are. Remember that you do not have to figure it out all by yourself and that help is one email or conversation away. Don’t hesitate to put yourself out there. There might be a lot of pressure to be good at university but allow yourself to take care of your mental health.”

Safia: “As a first-in-family student in Canada, I understand the challenges and overwhelming moments you may face. Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Take it one day at a time. I experienced moments of overwhelming pressure during my research, especially with the added difficulties of the pandemic. However, I learned to celebrate even small progress and be proud of myself. Looking back at my academic journey, I would not change a thing. Prioritize your well-being, celebrate your accomplishments, and do not forget to have fun along the way!”


During our conversation with Aayushmathi and Safia, we learned about the first-in-family experience. Both students told us it's essential to get support and use resources while in university. If you're looking to meet new people and join a friendly community, visit the First-in-Family Mentorship Program webpage. You can also check out the Impact of Wellbeing on Academic Success Tip Sheet to understand how certain things might affect your learning. If you ever find yourself running low on resources, the Self-advocacy Blog can guide you on what to do. Always keep in mind that you are not alone on this journey. The campus community is here to support you every step of the way. Embrace the available help and make the most of your university experience!