Last summer, as I started to prepare for my first year of college, I realized that I completed the college admissions process almost entirely by myself. I had completed the essays and the applications for scholarships and honors programs by myself, navigating my way through the ins and outs of Common App.
It dawned on me that for the next four years, I was going to be alone in doing almost everything college-related because I was the first one in my family to do so. I found myself without a lot of the resources and connections that other students had. Nonetheless, within the first year of being a university student, I have been able to maneuver through the difficulties of being a first-gen. Here are some of my tips!
1. Find students that come from similar backgrounds and learn from each other
This semester, I'm in an Intergroup Dialogue class and in the class, I often mention that I'm a first-generation college student, coming from a low-income family. This week was different for me though. As I was sharing my experience of having a small social network in college because I'm a first-gen, one of my peers agreed with me. Although she was just agreeing to my statement about how it's difficult to form connections in the world of university, where most of my family has never ventured, I felt affirmed in this part of my identity.
At my university, where the phrase "Daddy's Money" is used to describe students and the median family income of a student from the university is $119,000 and 54% come from the top 20 percent, I felt assured in my identity, knowing that at least someone in the class could relate. Finding someone you can relate to, whether you're a first-generation college student, someone from a low-income family, or a person of color, is incredibly important.
2. Seek out financial assistance and resources right away
At my college job as a barista at a cafe under the campus library, I've been asked multiple times by my coworkers how I found the job during my first year. It's a niche part of campus, the entrance hidden on the side of the library and in the basement level. I recently looked back at when I applied and realized that I had applied four months before the fall semester even started.
Being proactive about potential job positions at college is essential, especially if you're a first-generation college student or come from a low-income household. I noticed that my university recently added a new Financial Wellness Center, which I think is a great resource for those seeking financial assistance. Actively looking for scholarship and grant opportunities is also crucial.
3. Get involved, but don't overwork yourself
In college, I think there's a fine line between grinding hard and overworking yourself. It's important to be active in college organizations, where you can gain potential leadership experience, get volunteer hours, and meet great people! But I would recommend recognizing the workload that comes with each organization, taking into account the expectations of each position you hold.
As a first-generation college student, you might be surprised with the amount of work you have to complete for your classes, nonetheless the potential positions you might gain through organizations. The work-life balance of college has to do with time management and your time commitments, you will find this balance through trial and error.
Personally, I leave my Fridays relatively open so I catch up on sleep and work ahead on assignments, readings, and organization commitments like research and planning. Leaving this time for yourself will benefit you in the future, so I recommend having an "off day" where you plan the week ahead and focus on any classes you're behind in.
Look into getting involved by going to career and organization fairs that showcase hundreds of organizations that you might be passionate about and interested in. As I mentioned before, getting job and internship experience is important, but so is being socially involved on campus. Build connections and have fun!
4. Take care of yourself
The pressure of being a first-generation college student can be overwhelming and burdening at times. By taking care of yourself and monitoring how your body and mind are feeling, you can overcome this hurdle. Going back to not overworking yourself, be able to recognize when you need to take a step back from certain situations or responsibilities. Make sure not to fall into the hole of burnout, the concept of becoming exhausted from overwork. Take breaks from your long hours of studying and focus on yourself!
5. Don't doubt yourself, be confident
I have fallen into this problem many times between this semester and last semester. Looking at your peers, it can be easy to doubt yourself and your abilities. But being confident in yourself is key in these situations. As a first-generation student, you must have worked hard to get into the university you are in at the moment, it's important to focus on the abilities you have developed over the years.
It's natural to feel nervousness when jumping into a new environment, one that can be so unknown to you and especially your family, but your ambition has brought you to this point. Your hard work has led to you being accepted into university and being the first in your family to do so, be confident that you can work through this as well! It's important to find a support network in this situation, for me, my family has been incredibly supportive and encouraging.
6. Your perspective matters, embrace it!
As I mentioned before, I have spoken about being a first-generation college student in one of my classes this semester. Many of my peers in this class have mentioned that they come from families who are of high socioeconomic class, that their parents have gone to college, and that they have their college tuition paid for.
By speaking out about your experiences, you can not only find connections with other students as I mentioned earlier, but you can change someone else's perspective. It's important to embrace this part of your identity, along with the other parts of your identity. By being proud of your identity, you'll be able to motivate yourself and others, as well as engage in your course schedule more effectively.
Though I can't sit in the front row of my classes (because they're virtual) I have found that as I became more comfortable in the university environment and as a first-generation student, I was able to participate more and engage more in discussions.
Being the first person in your family to attend a four-year university can be a daunting task, but seeking out helpful resources and connections throughout your college experience is crucial to your success. If you're going to apply to college soon or are entering your first year of college next semester as a first-generation student, I applaud you! Remember to look back on your hard work and let it empower you in the future.