Dear First-Generation College Students,
As a first generation college student, I remember very well what a privilege and honor it was for me to be able to attend Emory University. I also remember how difficult it was in other ways.
I think author Jennine Crucet put it best, “The quintessential quality of the first-generation college student’s experience… is not even knowing what you don’t know.” Take move-in day, for example, my parents and I stretched our budget buying everything from the dorm checklist the college had sent, only to realize later that many of these items were optional and already available on campus.
At the outset, I began my college experience feeling out of place and wondered if I really had the ability to get good grades and graduate. Undoubtedly, many of my peers felt similarly, however, I do believe first-generation college students require additional support compared to what’s typically offered to new college students.
Universities have done a better job recognizing the array of challenges that first-gen students might face – and invested significantly in services that support them – but some say only the most prestigious campuses can provide these opportunities.
Here I want to share campus resources that a first-gen college student should utilize to fully take advantage of the academic and social benefits of higher education.
1. Talk to Your Academic Advisor
Be active about getting help. It works slightly different with each college, but typically new students are assigned an advisor in their area of interest who assists with registering for courses or adding/dropping classes or choosing a major.
But they are more than just clerical workers. Academic advisors are dedicated staff who are trained to guide students through the university system, and therefore can offer excellent advice to first-gen college students in particular. They can help you decipher some of the “college jargon” like how majors, minors, specializations, and concentrations work and explain the course credits you need to qualify. They can also connect you to other types of academic support services, like academic tutors or writing centers, available on campus.
2. Talk to Your Faculty Advisor
Meet regularly with your faculty advisor. Once you’ve declared a major, you’re assigned to a professor from your department who can help guide you to make long-range plans for college and beyond. At small colleges, your professors are more likely to teach, research, and perform a bulk of advising. At a larger school, your interaction with the faculty advisor can be limited.
Nonetheless, these are professionally successful individuals who can offer real-world guidance about your chosen field, so aim to meet with him or her at least once a semester. You can schedule appointments with your department’s office or email your advisor directly.
3. Talk to Your Professor
Make a connection with a professor(s) you genuinely admire. To stand out in their mind:
a) Learn his or her first name and introduce yourself after class. Approaching professors felt intimidating (in part due to my Asian upbringing, another part being a first-gen college student), but I did take advantage of office hours, where there’s more time to relax and have a conversation. One of my favorite professors, who lived a couple blocks from campus, even welcomed students at his home for gatherings. And I assure you, showing interest in your professor, both as a human and in their area of expertise will be appreciated. (Don’t forget their bios and CV are on the website!)
b) Maintain a reputation of excellence. While we all arrive late to class or miss a deadline from time to time, you don’t want your professor remembering you for those things. Be punctual and professionally courteous in emails. Whether it’s in a breakout session or lecture hall, bring your A-game to class.
4. Visit the Career Center
Locate this office early and access their valuable career resources. Every university has a dedicated office on campus to advise and assist undergraduate students to graduate “career-ready”. These centers cover everything from workshops on study skills and resumes to applying for internships and specialty academic programs to preparing for job interviews.
Career centers also develop relationships with employers and graduate schools wishing to recruits students and alumni from your school, so keep an eye on on their website and newsfeed for events!
5. Become Part of Campus Community Or Organization
This could be a campus faith group or Greek life organization or an honor society or an extracurricular club. Finding kindred spirits and interacting with folks different from you can be a way to find support, guidance, comfort and meaningful social connections.
6. Participate In Res-Life
A large part of learning inevitably takes place outside the classroom. You’re constantly meeting new people every day, so I encourage getting out of your comfort zone a bit and introducing yourself to hallmates and classmates on campus. And if you enjoy community-building, after freshman year, you can apply to serve as an advisor at a residence hall. If selected, you may receive comprehensive leadership training and qualify for free room and board or reduced living costs at your school. I worked as an advisor at a freshman residence hall my last year on campus, and loved spending time connecting and cultivating relationships among residents.
7. Take Advantage of Student Health Services
The student health center is another resource to locate early. Know the hours, know whether to call ahead or drop in, and know what is offered.Many services are provided at no cost to the student. It will be reassuring to know how to get there.
8.Specifically, Join A First-Generation Organization
In response to the growing number of first-gen students, some universities are finally offering programs or orientations specifically geared for first gen students. They’re enlisting current first-gen students and graduates to help create the curriculum or write blog posts sharing their experiences to recruit more students.
If your university has one, they will be under Campus Life section or First-Year Experiences sections on the website. If not, once you arrive on campus, talk with your academic advisor to identify other support services available.
My Stray Thoughts:
Don’t miss class
Next time you want to skip class, consider how much it sets you back. Google the average cost of a single course at a 4-year private university and it breaks down to around $4,000. Yikes. Fairly obvious, but you’re paying for a valuable education, so go to class!
Utilize your winter and summer breaks with stimulating learning experiences
Spending a semester in France studying immigration policy was one of the coolest things I did in college. I wouldn’t have known about this opportunity if it wasn’t for my faculty advisor, who led the trip. Although the cost deterred me at first, I was a scrappy kid and figured out the logistics of financing my trip with a grant.
Apply for campus jobs where you’re developing soft and hard skills & interacting with professors
I worked as a student assistant at the Art History Department all fours years in college, which was a coveted position back then as it gave ample free time to do homework, but personally, I wish I had applied for a job where I could interact with professors or develop hard skills more closely related to my major. Your school’s Career Center is a good place to start to explore your prospects.
Stay reflective on your college path
Take out a pen and write down why you’re in college and where you want to go next. Take a moment to reflect on this once a year. As the first in your family to go to college, it might be difficult to make connections between academics and career. And while no one has it all figured out at 19 years old, continually keeping the long-term picture in mind and identifying the specific support you need can help you be one of those rare individuals who gets the most out of college.
Include your parents on your college journey
Without their guidance and support, it is unlikely you would have been able to make it this far. Hopefully, as you grow more confident as a college student, you can discover a greater sense of belonging and community at at your school, and share in those accomplishments with your family. Keep them in the loop!
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