Going off to college can be intimidating for anyone, but when you’re the first person in your family to do so, that pressure is often multiplied. My mom, who worked two jobs to provide for my sister and I, did everything she could to prepare me for the big leap. She bought every item on my dorm furnishings list, moved me into my room and told me to do well. What wasn’t included in my send off was a talk on what to expect, how to be successful or where to go if I needed help. As a first-generation college student, there were some lessons I would have to learn on my own.
For all my fellow higher education pioneers out here gearing up for the big send off in the next week or so, feel free to benefit from my experience. As a parting gift, I offer you this list of 17 practical pieces of advice for first generation college students to ensure success:
1. It’s a different world
You’ve been in school your entire life. You’re probably familiar with the whole, study + exam = good grades formula. What you need to be prepared for is all the noise that gets in the way of that equation. College is about so much more than academics. You’re entering a new world with its own set of unspoken institutional rules and cultural norms.
2. The race begins now!
No matter where you come from, everyone enters their first class of freshman year with a 4.0 GPA. Your primary job is to do your best to maintain it.
3. They’re just words
I remember once I got into my major classes, I was initially overwhelmed by all the extra words people used. I came to college with a decent vocabulary, but the academic jargon and acronyms were new to me. Once I began noting and understanding each new term I encountered, I realized that career academics speak differently, but what they’re saying really isn’t that complicated.
4. Choose a major you love
As a first-generation college student, your number one priority might be choosing a major that yields the quickest return on your post-grad buck. Doing what you love can seem like a luxury reserved for the privileged, but nothing is further from the truth. If you’re passionate about something, you’re going to bring to it an energy and drive that will make you stand out from the pack and catapult you in your career. Pursuing a field of study that you’re not so enthusiastic about runs a high risk of career mediocrity.
5. Embrace the broke
If your parents can’t afford to break you off a little extra change every month, so be it. Live within your meager financial means. Seriously, it’s totally acceptable to be cash poor in college. It might be tempting to take on extra hours at your job or apply for a credit card in order to stunt with the rest of them, but credit balances have to be paid back (with interest), and you have the rest of your life to work those long hours. I assure you, when you look back, you won’t even remember the outfit you worked overtime to flex. It will be those carefree moments clowning around in the student union that you’ll cherish the most.
6. Hard work > everything
You’re going to be sitting side-by-side with students who have been preparing their entire lives for college. There will be some with connections and resources you can’t even imagine, but hard work trumps everything. Your discipline and work ethic will more than fill in the gap.
7. You belong here
Whether it’s the academic advisor who mildly insults you at every interaction or the bougie girl in your hall who never misses a condescending sneak diss, from time to time you’ll encounter characters who will make it their business to belittle you. Their goal is to get in your head and convince you that you don’t belong in their space. Don’t take the bait! Those who derive their esteem from their perceived status go to exhausting lengths to maintain their false air of superiority. This is their problem, not yours.
8. Ask questions
This is no time to fake it ’til you make it. In fact, this is one of the few times in your life when it’s perfectly acceptable to be clueless. If you don’t know, ASK!
9. Know your boundaries
My college bestie had the admirable ability to pick up things the first time she heard them. She could sit through a lecture and absorb every concept. With her memory, she could afford not to study. She could go out every night and still ace the exam. I, on the other hand, needed to review notes, read chapters and make note cards in order to reinforce what I had learned. I discovered the hard way that I couldn’t do what she did. At the end of the day, we both graduated with the same degree from the same university. It didn’t matter how we got there, just that we got there.
At this point in your life, your friends will have more influence on you than your professors, mentors and family combined. Choose your squad wisely. Live life, have fun, wild out (a little), but be mindful to surround yourself with positive, goal-oriented people who encourage and motivate you.
11. Get involved
Do as much as you can handle. Join clubs, run for office, pledge if you want. This will arguably be the best time of your entire social life. The networks and friendships you build now will last a lifetime and the leadership experience looks great on your resumé.
12. Expand your horizons
Take every opportunity to expand your consciousness. Make friends with people from totally different backgrounds, attend seminars that feature speakers with opposing views from you, apply for free opportunities to study abroad. Make it a personal goal to leave college a more well-rounded individual than when you started.
13. Tap your resources
Go to the career center to get resumé advice, sign up for free tutoring if you need a little extra help. Take full advantage of every resource at your disposal. Why not? Your tuition is paying for it.
14. Talk to your professors
Make sure your professors know who you are. Take advantage of their office hours. Your visibility could make the difference in that half point you need to pass the class. Be genuine, though…they’ve seen it all and can detect game from a mile away.
15. Find a mentor
Major key alert! Finding a mentor is probably the most important thing you can do. In my opinion, these relationships should grow organically. My mentor was a grad student with a similar background as me. Not only did he provide practical coaching and advice, but he was a walking example that I, too, could succeed.
16. Bring your whole self
Your background will make you sensitive to things that other people miss. Speak up, share your perspectives, bring your whole self to the table. Your perspective is valuable.
17. Keep your eyes on the target
You’re about to enter a period of amazing experiences, accelerated self-discovery and even some moments of agonizing pain. All of it is important, but the key to success is maintaining a balance that works for you. Take it all in, but keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to graduate.