3 Essential Pieces of Advice for First-Generation College Students

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Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with first-generation college students (“first-gens”) and discuss their transition to college. As a first-generation college student myself, these were discussions I related to, as the students expressed emotions and shared stories that I, too, had felt and experienced during college. Over the course of these discussions, three pieces of advice for first-gens emerged:

1. Ask For Help and Do It Early

In talking to first-gens and even thinking about my own experience as a first-gen, many of us think we shouldn’t ask for help. We think we can do things on our own and that asking for help or seeking out available resources somehow is a sign of weakness or symbolic of our inability to do something. If we struggle writing a paper, we are hesitant to use university writing centers; if we struggle with a personal issue, we’re reluctant to access campus counseling services; and if we struggle with the content of a particular course, we are not always eager to obtain a tutor.

However, in talking to the first-gens here at Denison University, this was one piece of advice they had for other students: don’t be afraid to ask for help! Ask for help or direction from your advisor, your resident assistant, your professors, your coach, and others with whom you’ve built a relationship. College campuses are filled with caring and kind people who can direct you to appropriate resources. Once you’ve found those resources, use them. You’ve enrolled in college to get an education, so you should take advantage of the many resources and supports that colleges put in place to help students succeed and thrive. Accessing resources is not a sign of weakness. In fact, what we often see is that the most driven students access resources because they don’t want to neglect any resource that will help them excel.

2. Know You Are Not Alone

Sometimes you feel like you might be the only kid on campus whose parents didn’t go to college. As you look around, it seems like everyone else has it together. It seems like everyone else is full of confidence. Sometimes as first-gens, we might feel like we don’t always know what we are doing or what the next step is, but that’s OK. There are many, many other first-generation college students on college campuses who are experiencing the same things we do. It’s also important to realize that many of the fears that we have about not fitting in or transitioning to college are things that non-first-generation students experience as well. College students are pros at making it seem like they have it all together on the outside, when they are scared or intimidated on the inside. Many students are nervous about the transition to college; many students have fears about not fitting in. It’s a normal part of the college transition, so know that you’re not alone!

3. Pursue Your Passions and Your Strengths

Many first-generation students come to college wanting to pursue a particular field like medicine or law, sometimes because they genuinely want to, and other times because they feel pressured by others to pursue careers that will lead to economic prosperity.

Graduating in the top of my high school class, I knew I was smart. I thought all smart people became doctors, so I initially thought I wanted to be pre-med. However, I strongly disliked chemistry and dreaded the thought of organic chemistry and physics. One day a professor sat me down and told me, “just because you change what you choose to pursue does not make you a failure.” That conversation gave me permission to choose a different path. Moving away from being pre-med felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I pursued something that I enjoyed and in which I excelled, which led the way to incredible career opportunities. So, when you feel pressured (either by yourself or others) to pursue a path that you don’t want to pursue, or when you find yourself in a major that doesn’t seem interesting, don’t be afraid to explore other majors or other paths. Give yourself permission to find a major or field that you find interesting and one that has the potential to lead to a career you’ll enjoy.

To help you in this career exploration process, seek out your Career Services office early and often. They can direct you to resources that will help you find opportunities for internships, externships and volunteering – all things that can help you build skills to succeed after college and bolster your resume. Look through the course catalog and find courses and majors that seem interesting. Ask your career counselor about any available job-shadowing experiences to see what a career is like in a potential field. Consult with your academic advisor or faculty members about potential opportunities in the field. Opportunities like these will help you decide whether a particular field is right for you, and participating in these opportunities early on, even during freshman or sophomore year, gives you time to explore and adjust your path as you discover new passions and interests.

So as you’re preparing to begin your first-year of college this fall, or if you’re returning for your sophomore, junior, or senior year, make sure you remember to ask for help when you need it, that you’re not alone, and to pursue what you find interesting. These three things alone have the potential to impact your college experience in positive ways. While first-generation students may face challenges during their time in college, those are obstacles you can overcome. And speaking from my own personal experience and from conversations with other first-generation students, the rewards of persevering are immense with regard to both your personal and professional lives.

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