Heading off to college for the first time as a trailblazer for your family can be scary. There are no footsteps to follow or family mentors to turn to for the simple questions about college life. College is about more than just education. You are entering a whole new world with its own set of unspoken rules and cultural norms. Here are a few tips to help you navigate this new world and set yourself up for success.
KNOW THE TOTAL COST OF COLLEGE BEFORE YOU COMMIT
Add up the cost of tuition, books, food, housing and travel. Include some extra money in the budget for entertainment and necessities. How much is this all really going to cost? Where are you going to get the money? How much financial aid is being given? Do you know how to read the financial aid letter? Use this link to get you started. Still have questions? College financial aid offices can walk you through the letter and help you to makes sense of it. Call them and ask. It is important to know the full cost of college and organized your financial plan ahead of time so that you can spend the time in college focused on your academics and enjoying your college experience.
There are many scholarships available for first generation students, but they will not fall in your lap. You have to do the research and find them. It might not be the most exciting task, but it will literally pay off in the end. Start here and here.
Finally, embrace being a college student who is cash broke! Know that most college students are cash poor – despite how they act. Don’t be tempted to use a credit card to buy things to keep up with your friends. You will have to pay it back with high interest!
CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY
Speaking of friends, be picky and choose your friend group wisely. You want friends who will help you make good choices. You will want to have fun and live a college life but make sure your friends have your back. Surround yourself with positive, goal-oriented people who encourage you and motivate you. Build that support system that you will need in this college culture. Know that while you are in college, your friends will have more influence than your family, professors and even your mentors.
How do you find those friends? Get involved! As a first-gen student, you may feel like you don’t fit in or wonder if your background makes you stand out. Nearly every first-year college student feels out of place. It takes time to make new friends, so be patient. Do as much as you can handle. Join clubs, intramural sports, cultural groups or any of the other student organizations that meet regularly. When you find your crew, this will likely be the best time of your entire social life.
CONNECT WITH COLLEGE RESOURCES
Need help with a class? Sign up for free tutoring. Looking for a part-time job? Go to the career center. Have questions about choosing your classes for your major? Get to know your academic advisor. Your advisor can assist you more than just by helping you pick your classes. They can answer lots of questions. Your advisor is one of the most important resources to get you through college in four years so if you don’t gel, ask to be assigned to another one.
Many colleges have student groups and advising offices specific to first generation students. Seek them out and find out what they offer. You may meet other students with similar backgrounds, and you might be surprised by what is available by way of scholarships, internships, tutoring and academic support.
TALK TO YOUR PROFESSORS
Speaking of resources, your professor is an excellent resource. Take advantage of office hours and make sure your professors know you. The first time you step into office hours might feel awkward to you, but the professor does this all the time and will likely put you at ease. If you are having a hard time keeping up in a class, professors are more likely to be flexible with a student that is actively trying to succeed.
College is not a time to “fake it till you make it “– ask questions if you don’t know something.
FIND A MENTOR
Finding a mentor is one of the most important things you can do as a first-gen college student. A mentor can be anyone that you trust who has more knowledge and understanding of what college has to offer so you have someone to turn to with the smallest of questions. Where do you find a mentor? Maybe a professor in a subject or field you find interesting (see “attending office hours” above) or an advisor to an activity you are involved in or even an older student who knows more about the college system.
KNOW THAT YOU BELONG
Practically every student who is heading to college is nervous. Will I flunk out? Will I fit in? As a first-generation student, you might be feeling this even more intensely. Don’t doubt yourself! You were accepted to college on your merit and you belong there! When you get on campus, avoid comparing yourself to other students. Everyone has their own struggles, and most people are good at faking it. You only need to have an Instagram account to know this. You’ve got what it takes to make it in college. Do your best, work hard and ask for help when needed.