5 Things I Wish I Knew as a First Generation College Student

College. It was always in the plan. Most Americans dream about graduating from high school with an acceptance letter to their first-choice school, and spending the next four years having the time of their lives. Others come from a background where college isn’t a possibility, or they and their families do the leg work to make it their future. Sometimes, first gen students go it alone. My life completely changed because I was a first generation college student.

When I was a senior in high school, my mom was supportive of whatever choice I made with regards to college. I knew she really wanted me to go for my own future, and I wanted to go because I’ve always loved learning. But when it came time to apply to schools, I had no idea where to start. The whole process was so daunting.

Even once I was accepted and began my time in undergrad, those challenges of being a first generation college student didn’t magically disappear. Now that I’ve been a college grad for almost a year, I wanted to put into words the top 5 things I wish I knew going into that experience.

1 // You deserve to be here.

This one is the most important, but I often forgot my worth. I was a woman of color in a white male-dominated major, Economics. I often felt out of my element in that classroom, regardless of whether or not my professors liked me and I knew the answers. Don’t get me wrong; there were many times I felt uplifted and encouraged in both of my majors. I even graduated with honors in both departments, and as a Phi Beta Kappa member.

But that doesn’t negate that the road to graduation was hard. There were so many moments from the first day to the last that I felt undeserving of such an opportunity because of the socioeconomic status I was born into. So before you even step foot onto that campus, remember that you deserve this experience. You will work hard for it, but your spot in that classroom is not diminished because of how much your parents make, that you’re a first generation college student, or anything else about you.

2 // You will be surrounded by people that can’t relate.

If you attend a 4-year college and you are the first in your family to do so, then I can guarantee you’ll have classmates that just won’t understand what it’s like. It can be isolating, but there will also probably be students there like you. Having that community on your campus of people that come from similar backgrounds helps so much in the transition period from being at home to college life.

Just as it is on campus, there will be people at home that don’t understand. Maybe your family’s supportive, but they can’t fully relate to how emotionally exhausting it is to be surrounded by so much privilege. Or you have friends and classmates back home that don’t experience college or life post-high school in the same way. All of these relationships will continue to be important in your life, so keep them in the loop. But, know beforehand that not everything about your lives will match up. Just like you won’t understand everything that’s going on in their lives, they probably won’t understand everything about your life now. And that’s okay.

3 // Money will be a challenge throughout your four years.

Oh, boy. College financial aid has starry-eyed hopefuls like us clinging to the possibility that college is meant for us, too. And it is. Or at least, it should be. But just because you enter on a financial aid award that makes your first year possible doesn’t mean it will stay that way. I even attended a school with frozen tuition, meaning that your tuition is guaranteed to be the same for four years. But what if your financial aid award decreases from year to year? And what if the reasons have nothing to do with grades or changes in income? Suddenly, frozen tuition doesn’t seem like such a good deal after all…

My senior year, I had an issue with the financial aid office that stood between me and my Bachelor’s. I went into the office repeatedly and brought evidence to support why I should get my old financial aid award back, and I did. Students whose parents can sign a check for four years of undergrad don’t have that kind of stress on top of their school work.

There’s a high chance that you’re working outside of your classes, too. The stress of money is like taking on another course load, one that you can’t control and affects you more than anything else. It is a factor whose importance will never go away, even until you walk across that stage and get your degree.

4 // Take time for yourself.

Aside from my first point, this one is also super important. I wish that I had taken more time to do things for myself. I was horrible at self-care while in college. By the time I graduated, I went to class, worked multiple jobs, completed assignments, studied, participated in clubs, and did so much more that I rarely slept a full night and had a serious caffeine addiction.

My schedule was constantly going. I stopped doing things I loved because I just didn’t have the time. Part of the reason I rarely blogged in college was my hectic schedule. The main reason I felt I had to do so much is because I was a first generation college student. Please, please don’t do things the way I did. If I could go back, I wouldn’t have stretched myself so thin and over-committed to the point of exhaustion.

5 // You can make it to graduation.

When you get that first hard day in college, whether it be because of grades, social life, or money, please hear this: you can make it. I’m not naïve enough to believe that college in America is attainable for everyone. Our current, corrupt system doesn’t allow for equality. That’s the hard truth. But once you’re there, I hope with everything in me that those difficult days don’t turn into your last days in college.

There were times I was over it. Over being a first generation college student, over the social pressures on my campus, tired of being surrounded by people that didn’t look like me, didn’t understand my life, and tired of working so hard all the time. But I was able to lean on my support system. I let go of some extracurriculars that weren’t worth my self-care time anymore. Instead, I focused on making it to graduation, and enjoying the last few months on my campus. I believe in you. Your future and your success are important, however that may look.

Regardless of where you come from, your background, your career interests, or your identity, I hope that you find your calling. Maybe it’s college; maybe it’s not. Once you know what your passion is, keep working hard towards your goals. I can’t wait to see all the amazing things you’ll do.

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