Top 10 Tips For First-Generation College Students

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On August 15th, 2013, I became the first person in my family to attend college, making me a first-generation college student.

I honestly didn’t understand what a big accomplishment it would be to become the first person in my family to earn a college degree.

I remember feeling completely lost on campus and was unaware of any resources that would make my college transition easier.

But before I provide you with some valuable tips to succeed as a first-generation college student, I would first like to clarify some basic questions that people have regarding first-generation college students:

What is a first-generation college student?

A first-generation college student is someone who is the first person in their immediate family to attend college and whose parents did not obtain a four-year college degree.

Are you a first-generation college student if your siblings went to college?

Yes, you and your sibling(s) are technically still considered a first-generation college student if your parents have not obtained a four-year degree.

What are some struggles first-generation college students face?

There are lots of them – every person’s experiences vary. 

If you’re first-gen like me, you’ll most likely face some of these struggles if you haven’t already:

  1. You have to learn to navigate your way through campus on your own and find resources by walking around or asking for assistance.

     

  2. At times, you will experience loneliness, doubt, worry, anxiety, and being home sick.

     

  3. You are expected to know how to fill out FAFSA, documents, arrange campus tours, and apply to college all on your own.

     

  4. You don’t feel prepared. I never took any AP classes or was provided any advice or college hacks to succeed in college. You’ll learn through trial and error.

  5. You don’t know about successful study habits, office hours, or any financial & academic resources to help you through college.

     

  6. You are unaware of resources that could potentially make your life easier. I didn’t even know what scholarships were before…

  7. You will experience what’s called the ‘Impostor Syndrome’. It’s actually very common among college students. There will be days and times when you experience feeling that you do not belong somewhere (like being in college) and start to doubt yourself. I feel like I experienced it everyday.

     

  8. You feel pressure to graduate college since your parents didn’t have the same opportunity to earn a college degree.

     

  9. You feel like you don’t have support from your parents or family and that they will not understand your stress, anxiety, or anything you talk about.

Why am I telling you this?

Because although it’s super important to make connections and find college resources, the ONLY thing that is going to get you through college is YOUR actions.

While faculty and staff can provide resources to assist you through college, YOU have to be willing to seek and ask for those resources first.

Like the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make the horse drink it”.

Here are some statistics about first-generation college students:

First-generation college students

Regardless of the statistics showed above, I want to share with you my top 10 tips to help you navigate through college as a first-generation college student.

1. Have a Positive Attitude Towards College

I remember one day I was standing outside my classroom reading over some notes for a Psychology exam. I was stressed as hell since I had been studying for nearly 2 WEEKS and still didn’t feel ready for the exam. 

I even called in sick to work twice just to have more time to study.

Anyways, as I’m waiting there, one of my classmates walks up to me all nonchalant.

I look up at him and ask: “Yo bro, you ready for this exam or what?”

My classmate: “Yeah, it should be easy.”

Me: “That’s right, bro! You been studying hella then, huh?”

My classmate: “I skimmed through my notes for like 30 minutes last night – I should be fine. What about you?”

Me: “Right?! That’s what I was thinking. I barely studied too – it shouldn’t be that hard.”

I wouldn’t admit to it then, but I became frustrated often because I was constantly studying and felt like other students were just raking in A’s left and right without even studying or going to office hours as much I would.

Being a first-generation college student means you are going to be frustrated at times for not knowing the right ways to study or understanding things about college.

You’ll often compare yourself to other students and wonder how they make college seem so easy.

But it’s important to understand that they might have more help than you think and comparing your experiences to theirs won’t change anything for you.

So stay motivated!

2. Seek Out all the College Resources That are Available

Your main priority when you first start college is to find every single possible resource there is on campus.

This includes finding out about available resources like: scholarships, financial assistance, the student success center, free tutors, the health center, clubs/organizations to join, the food pantry (free food), career connections, academic success coaches (like me), and anything else to help you succeed through college.

I found a ton of internships, free books, a program that awarded me a scholarship, free food to eat, and many other resources that made my college experience easier.

It’s up to you, as a student and as an adult, to seek these resources. Life isn’t always going to hand you free things and money. 

But it could – if you make the initial step to just ask.

Learning about academic and financial resources your college offers not only benefits you – it may also benefit someone else you know that is also in need.

3. Find an Academic Counselor and Complete Your Educational Plan

A recent study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 60% of college students are graduating within 8 years instead of the typical 4-5 years.

It’s super important that you get an educational plan done to prevent this from happening to you.

An educational plan is where you sit down with a counselor, and they plan out your whole college career to help you graduate within 4-5 years.

Keep in mind that colleges and universities have different names for these educational plans. So make sure to meet with a counselor and explain to them what you learned today and say something like,

“Yo, Marcos from Smart-Noodle said I need to do an educational plan with you. So can you help me out or what?”

Ok, don’t actually say it like that. But you know what I mean.

As academic counselors, they’ll be able to outline what classes or prerequisites you are required to take for each quarter/semester and determine the year you’ll be graduating.

You’d be surprised by how many college students take random classes assuming that they count as credits towards their degree.

4. Remember Why You Started College in the First Place

Trust me on this one.

Write down the reasons why you started college in the first place and who’s going to be cheering for you at your graduation. 

Next time you think about giving up, look back at what you wrote to remind yourself why you started in the first place.

Remembering your ‘why’ during the times you feel like giving up will help you stay strong and motivate you to accomplish your goal of obtaining a college degree.

For example, I have a vision board with quotes, goals, deadlines, and photos that show where I want to be in life within the next 5-6 years.

I included pictures of a mansion, a nice car, vacation destinations, my loved ones, headlines from news articles, trophies and awards, money, and believe it or not, pictures of scholarships I want to provide for students who use smart-noodle.

I highly recommend you take some time to create one of your own!

Looking at my vision board during the times I wanted to drop out reminded me why I started and why I should keep going.

5. Find Other First-Generation College Students Just Like You

Honestly, this probably sounds weird, but surrounding yourself with people who share the same struggles and stress as you is very reassuring, lol.

Make the effort to meet other first-generation college students and support one another throughout your college journey. 

The going gets easier when you have support system you can count on while in college. 

To this day, some of my best friends from Cal Poly are also first-generation college students because we remember the struggles that brought us together.

6.Attend Office Hours and Establish a Relationship With Your Professors

The benefits of building a relationship with your professor include (but are not limited to): getting excellent resources, killer recommendation letters, internship & scholarship opportunities, and having someone to ask for advice about college resources.

If I couldn’t attend their office hours for whatever reason, I would make weekly appointments with every single one of my professors each quarter.

While I understand it can be intimidating to attend office hours, do not miss out on this opportunity. Professors are legally required to have office hours for students – it’s part of their contract.

Just remember, professors were college students once too – so don’t be afraid to approach them and ask questions or for any clarifications about what’s required to pass the class.

Another pro tip for office hours is to research your professor ahead of time. 

People love talking about themselves. 

If you show up to their office hours and mention some of their previous accomplishments, they will be impressed with you and keep you in mind. 

This helps build a connection with them. If you’re looking for an internship and mention it to them – they’ll be more than happy to help you out and refer you if they hear about an opportunity.

So be smart and don’t miss out. Build those connections with your professors.

Plus, the more you get to know each other, the more sources you will have to ask for recommendation letters when applying for jobs or internships.

7. Join Clubs and Organizations Related to Your Interests and Values

I guarantee that you will feel a stronger sense of belonging on your college campus by joining clubs and organizations because it gives you a chance to meet others who are similar to you. 

Joining clubs and becoming involved in different organizations truly opened up so many opportunities for me. 

By the time I graduated college, I literally had about 10 professors with PhDs who I know for a fact would still write me killer recommendation letters and references if I needed them. 

That’s honestly how I got my job straight out of college and got to work at a community college, had my very own office, and full-time benefits. 

Joining clubs and organizations gave me the edge against other applicants during the hiring process to become an Academic Success Coach.

I don’t say this to be cocky in any way. Rather, I say it only to remind you that a college degree is not sufficient enough to land you a job straight out of college. 

Here’s a blog post I wrote that you NEED to read about: “Reasons Why College Graduates Are Underemployed”.

You’ll learn about the importance of relevant work experience and mistakes you need to avoid while in college.

There are also some shocking statistics in there that all students need to be aware about.

8. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions About Everything

I made the mistake of letting my pride and ego keep me from building up the courage to go and ask questions. 

I was so nervous and embarrassed that I would ask a “dumb” question. 

Truth is: there’s no such thing as a ‘dumb question’. If you have it, chances are someone else in your class does too. 

Like I mentioned before: I was surrounded by a bunch of nerdy students who knew everything, and I didn’t want them to think I was dumb.

My advice to you is that although there may be times when you’ll be afraid to ask questions, just do it.

Why be afraid to ask a question that other people are probably wanting to ask but are afraid to do so?

Instead of struggling trying to figure things out on your own, just ask for help and save yourself valuable time.

9. Find Mentors to Guide You Through College

A mentor can either be a professor, staff member or even one of your peers who has been going to college longer than you. 

While in college, Mayra, myself and two other friends started a peer-mentoring program to help underrepresented college students have a smooth and enjoyable experience by providing them with guidance and valuable resources.

Ask around your college to find out if there are any peer-mentoring programs or clubs to join.

I was very blessed to have my professors become my mentors.

They would always provide me with opportunities like scholarships, internships, job opportunities. I even got hired as a research assistant to enhance my level of work experience within Psychology.

My professors motivated me everyday and would always be checking up on me to make sure I was passing my classes.

10. Understand that Hard Work Really Works!

You are going to meet many college students who are incredibly book smart and actually know how to navigate their way through college.

Don’t compare yourself to others!

Understand that hard work and working smart (using your time wisely) is what’s going to get you through your academic studies.

While they are out partying, make sure you are studying and gaining work experience towards your major.

Look at this journey as a challenge rather than an obstacle. 

I truly believe in the power of the mindset. 

Only you have the power to switch your mindset to get what you want.

Don’t sit around waiting for something to happen or make excuses – hold yourself accountable. 

I say this to be real with you.

There were so many times when I doubted myself and made excuses. 

I even wanted to drop out of college many times, but I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I did in high school.

Think about your parents, their sacrifices, and everything in-between that they have done to help you get the opportunity to earn a college degree.

Think about your future and how much support and guidance you’ll be able to provide for your children to help them navigate through college.

As my favorite rapper J. Cole says: “there’s beauty in the struggle”.

Conclusion

In short, just remember: being a first-generation college student means you will face a lot of struggles, but you don’t have to do it alone. 

While I have listed 10 ways that could help you, there are many resources out there you need to take advantage of – whether they be professors, other students, or helpful guides and tools. 

If you have any questions or concerns about higher education, be sure to join the Smart-Noodle Facebook community page or write them in the comments section below. 

Other than that, what have you experienced as a first-generation college student?

Is there any advice that you would like to pass on to other first-generation college students?

Leave your questions or comments below!

Yours Truly,

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Yo! Yo! We are Marcos & Mayra

We help college students and millennials with ways to save & make money, eliminate debt, scholarship advice, resume & interview tips, and to achieve financial freedom to help you
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