I was a first generation college student. My mom never finished high school, and my dad got his GED. I had no older siblings, and no close relatives who had completed college, either. So when it came to picking a college, applying, getting financial aid, and generally navigating the “college experience,” I was basically flying blind. Still, I was lucky; my parents were extremely supportive, giving me the time and space and emotional support to do what I needed to do. While they couldn’t give me much advice on the technicalities of getting through college, they were always willing to help out however they could. Not everyone has as much support as I did.
But there are many, many things I wished that I had known before I started college and as I made my way through those four years. While I could probably write an entire book on the Things I Wished I Knew, I have decided to narrow some more important points down for this post.
So, whether you are a first-generation student like I was or just someone who is looking for a little bit of advice on navigating the murky college waters, I present to you my Top 5 Things I Wished I’d Known as a First Generation College Student.
1. Consider your options.
Picking a college can be overwhelming. Right after high school, I started out at a community college. When it came time to transfer, I had a hard time deciding what I wanted to do next. I’ve always been indecisive and the bigger the decision, the harder it is for me to make. Ultimately, I ended up picking my college for two main reason: I had friends that went there, and it wasn’t too far from home. I picked the safest, least terrifying option.
While in the end I had a great experience at my school – my program was excellent and my time there was mostly positive – I do wish I had given some more consideration to my decision. Picking a school where I already had friends was part of the reason why I didn’t put myself out more during college. I didn’t feel like I needed to, because I already had a friend base. Plus, I went to a school where there were A LOT of people from my high school, and constantly having those people around me made it hard to put high school in the past.
That being said, you should do what’s best for you. And if that’s going to a school close to home with all your high school friends, then that’s great. Or if that’s travelling to another state while everyone you know is staying close to home, that’s great, too. Weigh your options. Think about your life and your future and what decision is going to be the most fulfilling for you. Even if it’s frightening.
2. Get involved
One of my big regrets from college is that I didn’t get involved more. I didn’t join any clubs and I went to very few campus events. There was no reason for this besides my own anxiety, and the previously mentioned safety net of friends that I went to school with.
And the thing is, it is ridiculously easy to get involved. On many college campuses, there are so many clubs that it shouldn’t be a problem to find at least one that you’re interested in. I know the idea of trying something new can be scary. I’m an introvert and I’ve suffered from varying degrees of anxiety over the years. Still, I would encourage you to ignore any fear you may have and get involved in something, anything. Remember, if you hate it after one try, you never have to do it again.
The same goes for campus events. My school hosted tons of free or cheap events, but I never paid attention to what was going on around me. Check out your school’s website for a calender of events, and poke around campus for fliers advertising anything upcoming. Even if you have no one to go with, go alone. You might meet someone there, or you might decide that that kind of event isn’t for you. Whatever the case, at least you can say that you did it.
3. Talk to your professors
Your professors, for the most part, don’t get off on watching you fail. They hold office hours for a reason! And it’s perfectly acceptable to go to a professor’s office hours even if you don’t have a specific question or problem. Even if you just want to ask, “What’s my grade like in the class right now?” Or if you’re really interested in a particular subject, you can say, “I’m really interested in X subject, can you suggest any additional resources to do more research?” Professors, generally, love this kind of thing and will be happy to help you. Will you meet the occasional jerk who is only there to do research and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about students, or a power-hungry tyrant who got into teaching so they could feel better about their own insignificant lives? Probably. But that shouldn’t scare you off from reaching out. The good outweighs the bad.
Plus, your professors can be an invaluable help to you once you graduate. Connections you make now can lead you to jobs in the future, or can help you to get letters of recommendation for scholarships, grad school, or a job.
4. Check out on campus resources and ask for help.
At my college, there was an office called Student Outreach Services, which focused on helping underrepresented students, including first-generation students. But the thing is, I didn’t know this office existed until I was almost done with my schooling. I never even thought to look and see if there were services geared toward students who were like me. Who knows if they would have been helpful to me earlier on?
Besides the fact that I didn’t know about this service, I’m also incredibly stubborn. I don’t like to ask for help. And I had no one telling me to look for it, either, because know one even knew I might need it. So this is me telling you. Seek out help. Even if you think you don’t need it. It does not make you weak or stupid or foolish. It means you are strong enough to recognize what you need and doing something to get it.
Besides academic help, there are all kinds of resources for mental health services and other personal issues you may encounter during your college years. If you find yourself struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Chances are, there is a counseling center on your campus, with free resources for students. And if you end up with a personal issue (death in the family, extended illness, etc.) there are services that can help you stay on track so you don’t fall behind or end up dropping out. Try a looking for a new student services office or an “Office for Student Life” to get you started on resources available on your campus. Again, reach out to your professors if you are unsure where to start in looking for help.
5. Study abroad-but start planning EARLY.
I didn’t study abroad in college, but I wish that I had. It wasn’t for a lack of desire or even a lack of trying that made it so I didn’t study abroad; I just didn’t start planning early enough, and it ended up making things impossible.
Applications to study abroad are due up to a year in advance of when you want to leave, something I didn’t realize when I started the process. Additionally, many scholarships that are available to help alleviate the costs of studying abroad have very early deadlines as well. For example, say you wanted to do a spring semester study abroad. Some scholarships will have deadlines falling in the spring or summer of the previous year. Again, not something I realized, and it lead to me not being able to take advantage of as many scholarship opportunities as I could have.
Talk to the study abroad office of your school. Poke around their website and come armed with specific questions. With proper planning, it is very likely that you can study abroad, you just have to work ahead. In fact, I made an entire post on this topic.
While I could on on, I am going to stop at my Top 5. Is there anything I left out? What do you wish you could tell yourself before you started college?