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By Griselda Nevarez

When Manuel Contreras, 21, first visited Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island as a high school student, everything about the prestigious school “felt right.” It was his dream school, the place where he felt he belonged. But all that changed first semester of freshman year.

“I struggled a lot academically,” said Contreras, who grew up in San Diego, California and is pursuing a degree in cognitive science. “I wasn’t as prepared as many of my other peers.”

During that first semester, the son of working-class Mexican immigrants started to feel that he didn’t belong there. He noticed he was different from his fellow students; many of them came from wealthy families and had parents who were college educated. After visiting his family in California during the winter break, he felt he didn’t fit in at home, either.

“My parents were like, ‘You seem more educado,’” Contreras said, adding that while his parents were proud of him, they were afraid he was becoming different from them as he became more educated. His father is a landscaper, his mother works cleaning a hospital. Neither of them went to college, and they didn’t understand what their son was going through.

When Contreras returned to Brown for his second semester that freshman year, the situation only got worse. He recalled trying to study at one of the campus libraries late at night when he began feeling really sad.

“I was really thrown off,” he said. “I got really down in a way that I had never felt before.”

Several students who were the first in their family to attend college found it to be a different world that felt out of place. Their solution? They formed a network to support each other.

A Mexican-American student from Texas noticed Contreras at the library and approached him. He was a Junior at Brown and also the first in his family to go to college. Contreras talked to him for more than an hour, and shared that he felt he didn’t “deserve” to be at Brown. The student confided that he once felt the same way and reassured Contreras that he did belong.

That conversation was a turning point in his life, said Contreras.

“It felt so much better to know that other students have gone through this before and that they got through it—and that I would get through it,” he said.

After the incident at the library, Contreras began having more conversations like these with Stanley Stewart and Jessica Brown, two first-generation students who lived in the same dorms as he did. Before freshman year ended, they spent long hours sharing their experiences and spoke of how they often felt “out of place."

Come sophomore year, they developed an independent study project to analyze the socioeconomic struggles that first-generation college students face when they attend college. They turned the project into a seminar with the help of Gregory Elliott, a sociology professor at Brown who was also the first in his family to go to college.

“It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had at Brown,” Elliott said about working with Contreras and the other students.

Elliott said he encouraged the students to “start a social movement.” They heeded his advice and in January 2014 formed a student group called 1vyG through a fellowship with the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown. The goal was to connect first-generation students at Brown with other colleges and universities.

A year later, the group hosted a conference that brought together more than 250 first-generation college students and administrators from more than a dozen of the country’s most selective colleges and universities. The three-day conference held at Brown was billed as the first of its kind.

File photo of Harvard University students walking through the campus.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The students discussed what it means to be a first-generation student at an elite school and shared some of the challenges they face. Breakout sessions were held to boost interaction between students and administrators. Speakers included the co-founder of the nonprofit QuestBridge and the executive director of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher college initiative.

Administrators were presented research about the programs and resources available - or not available - to first-generation students at various colleges and universities. Lynda Lopez, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago, conducted some of that research as the national research coordinator for 1vyG. She concluded that it’s important for schools to create an inclusive environment for all students, especially students who are the first in their families to attend college.

“It’s one thing to give a student a scholarship and recruit them, but it's another thing to actually make sure that they feel included socially and are able to thrive academically,” said Lopez, whose parents are Mexican immigrants and who was the first in her family to go to college.

Since the conference, members of 1vyG have been working with administration officials at their respective schools to improve support for first-generation college students, and the group hopes to expand its network to other schools.

Elliott, who was one of conference speakers, said first-generation students often struggle for a number of reasons. They generally lack knowledge on how to navigate their way through college, and don’t have parents who have gone and can help. They also don’t always get the best advice from counselors, leading them to take classes in high school that require them to only memorize rather than to think critically, an important skill especially in selective schools.

“They end up not getting very good preparation for college,” Elliott said. “And if they’re fortunate enough to get admitted, they don’t have much to lean on when they arrive on that first day.”

“It’s one thing to give a student a scholarship and recruit them, but it's another thing to actually make sure that they feel included socially and are able to thrive academically," said first-generation college graduate Lynda Lopez.

Many first-generation students also feel “a great deal of conflict internally” knowing that by the time they graduate college, they’ll be more educated than their parents, explained Elliott. In addition, it can be frustrating when parents don’t understand the majors these students may choose to study.

Deborah Santiago, co-founder of Excelencia in Education, said strong family ties can pull Latino students back home before graduation. She said that’s why it’s important to cultivate a campus climate that makes students feel welcome.

“If they don’t see someone on campus who looks like them or if they don’t eat the food that they’re used to eating or meet somebody who can relate to them, then college can be very alienating,” she said.

Santiago said it’s important to provide first-generation Latino students with “intrusive advising.” That includes having college advisors work with students to set short and long-term goals as well as develop an action plan to achieve those goals. Otherwise, they’ll be inclined to drop out.

Nationally, roughly 30 percent of entering freshman in the United States are first-generation students, with a large portion of them coming from low-income families. But as the nonprofit I’m First points out, a whopping 89 percent of these students will leave college within six years without a degree. They are also four times more likely to drop out during their first year of college than students whose parents have a college degree.

Arizona Democratic congressman Ruben Gallego was close to being part of that statistic. The freshman lawmaker said he felt “very different” from other students when he began attending Harvard University as a first-generation student.

“It was a different world,” he said. “Harvard is a very affluent school, and culturally I think it was very different than what I had grown up in.”

Gallego grew up poor in Chicago, with a single mother from Colombia who struggled to provide for him and his three sisters. Once at Harvard, he found himself surrounded by “a lot of affluent, very nice people.” He recalled having a $50 per week budget that he had to stick to. “For some of my friends, $50 is what they would spend in a night,” he said.

By sophomore year, Gallego still felt he didn’t fit in and his grades began to suffer. So he left Harvard and enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he gained confidence and maturity. He eventually went back to Harvard and earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations.

“I always knew I would return,” he said. “I worked hard to get to college, and I knew that I had to finish.”

Gallego said his “biggest mistake” at Harvard was not asking for help, in part because he wasn’t used to it. “I was always one of the best students in high school and students asked me for help,” he said.

A large number of first-generation college students do not graduate in 6 years. Experts say more support is needed to increase their graduation rates.Jonathan Gibby / for NBC News

“Also, I was always the strong one in my family,” he continued. “After my dad left, I had to be emotionally the strong person in every sense of the word. I basically got accustomed in my life to not asking for help.”

Gallego’s experience is common.

“We find that many of these first generation college goers are very resilient—meaning that despite the odds, they’ve made it—but they don’t always feel comfortable asking for help,” Santiago said. “They feel like they’ve made it this far on their own and that they can keep doing it.”

Meanwhile, other students perceive asking for help as a sign of weakness. The downside to that, Santiago said, is that students miss out on the resources—like tutoring or mentoring—that are there to help them.

Like Santiago, Lopez said she advises students to seek help and talk about the issues they’re facing, something she regrets not doing in college.

“I think it’s really important for students to voice their concerns,” Lopez said. “They might feel bad to talk about the issues that they’re facing. But if they don’t talk about it, nothing will change.”

Contreras hopes their organization convinces first-generation students that while they may be the first in their family to go to college, they don't have to experience this life-changing event alone.

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