Advice for First-Generation College Students

College is both an exciting and intimidating place to be. As a first-generation college student, I oftentimes found myself in need of help but reluctant to ask. I didn’t know where to go or who to go to, and what made it more difficult was that I was 3000 miles away from home and all the family I’d ever grew up with. Because my parents didn’t go to or finish college, there were lessons I just had to learn on my own and depend on the resources and people around me. For those of you who are in a similar situation, here are 5 tips for first-generation college students to ensure your success:

  • Always remember, you belong here!

You have worked extremely hard to get to where you are now. There are going to be times in class or meetings with professors where you’re second-guessing whether or not you belong in this space. You earned the right to be here, and you deserve to see the fruits of your labor. Don’t let condescending interactions on campus degrade your experience or your worth. This may be one of the hardest lessons to learn and one that you will continue to revisit throughout your time in college.  

  • Study what you love.

There may be pressures from your family and even yourself on what “practical” major you should declare to get that “practical” job after college, but remember that this is something you have to be willing to study for the next 4+ years. I changed my major 3 times in college and finally settled on what was the perfect major for me — Africana Studies. I knew I loved literature and I loved learning about the African Diaspora so it only made sense to declare in this field. When selecting your major, explore the classes that peak your interest and notice what draws you in. Don’t be afraid to stray away from the initial major you thought you would study. College is about taking calculated risks and exploring parts of yourself more deeply.

  • Advocate for yourself.

College is a new environment for you as a first-gen student. While there are many resources available to you for almost anything, you have to be willing to ask and sometimes fight. Not happy with the financial aid package you received? Talk to the financial office about petitioning for more work study or subsidized loans. Apply for retention programs that provide stipends, book vouchers, one-on-one advising, and help with free tutoring for those classes you’re struggling in. Speak up in class if you if feel like something is wrong or the professor is overlooking an issue that you believe deserves more attention.  Also take care of your well being. Go to the counseling services to talk through any emotional traumas you are experiencing because your mental health is crucial to succeeding not just in college but in life.

  • Get active and involved.

Be a leader. Or at least let your voice be heard. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of college students, so make sure that you’re taking advantage of your experience while you can. Study abroad, join the executive board of a club, start your own club, work at the student union and organize events, take a class that has nothing to do with your major but you still enjoy (and counts towards graduation). All these activities exist for you. Tailor your college experience so it benefits you. Your tuition covers these opportunities and you want to ensure that you’re maximizing on all your resources.

  • Know your support system.

Navigating college is difficult. You want to make sure you’re being supported financially, emotionally, and academically. Whether it’s family, friends from high school, your roommate, or anyone else, know who is in your corner. Also utilize what’s available to you on campus — financial aid office, Education Opportunity Program (EOP), counseling services, tutoring, and more. These people will help you persist and meet your goal of being the first in your family to graduate college. It takes a village, and you have access to that village whenever you reach out for help. This is your home away from home, and you want to be certain that this is a place where you can thrive.

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Ashley Terry

Ashley Terry

Ashley Terry, raised in the East Bay Area, received her Bachelor's degree in Africana Studies from Barnard College of Columbia University in 2015. She currently works at her alma mater, The Bay School of San Francisco in college counseling, supporting students and parents through the college process. Through her work, she hopes to cultivate change within her students and through her written work.

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