What is a first-generation college student?
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First-generation student success story
My journey as a first-generation college student begins in May 2013 as a recent high school graduate. My family was considered low-income, so I had no way of paying for school unless I was able to secure funding.
From public housing to ivy league
I had found out about a scholarship for minority high school seniors who showed academic excellence. This scholarship was called the Bill & Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarship, a 10-year scholarship that Bill Gates and his then-wife initiated to send low-income students to school on a full ride.
Against all odds
The year I applied for Gates, there were over 25,000 applicants from the United States who also applied. 2,000 applicants were chosen as finalists, and only 1,000 of those students would ultimately secure a 10-year full-ride scholarship through the Gates Foundation.
After 9 essays, over 100 reported hours of community service hours, and spending the previous 3 years working hard to achieve a 4.1 GPA, I became one of those 1,000 students to achieve the honor of being a Gates Millennium Scholar.
There are plenty of first-generation low-income (FGLI) college student success stories just like mine, and yours could be next! You just have to develop your mindset and learn the skills highlighted in this article. Never underestimate the power of good grades and cultural capital.
I believe in you. But more importantly, I need you to believe in you too.
What are the 10 best ways to succeed as a first-generation college student?
1. Look for scholarships to attend college
You don’t have to wait until you get to college to seek out college funding. In my case, I started identifying scholarship opportunities as a freshman in high school. There is hidden money all over the place for students, and first-generation students have an advantage because various organizations target these students to help them attend college.
Low-income families typically have an advantage since their family income hinders them from using economic benefits.
When in high school, go to high school counselors and ask them if they have a list of scholarships for first-generation students. Usually, they are aware of these funding opportunities because more than likely, they helped previous students just like you secure funding and attend college.
But don’t just stop there! Go to other teachers, like your English teacher or even your principal, and ask them about available scholarships. I found that if I was willing to show a little bit of confidence and ask for help, that people were more than willing to give me the answers I needed or point me in the direction of someone who could.
You have to be willing to speak up for your future, but don’t worry. As you practice this technique, your confidence in asking for help will grow over time.
High school students have an advantage most time. But don’t beat yourself up if you are a current college student and still don’t have funding. Your university offers funding for current college students through the Office of Financial Aid.
Set an appointment with a representative from your school’s financial aid office and ask them about scholarships offered through the university. The financial aid process can be daunting, but you got this!
2. Research college resources and tools for first-generation students
We have discussed one form of support for first-gen students (the cash). Now, let’s look at another source. I always say that money is just one way to find the help you need, but what happens when you get the money, and still remain unsure about how to navigate through higher education.
After all, as first-generation college students, it’s not like you can go to your parents or other family members and ask them about their experience in college and how they faced certain challenges. You are in unchartered territory and blazing a trail for those who are to come behind you. You should be very proud of yourself since many first-generation students have to overcome a lot.
However, you don’t know what you don’t know, so if you are struggling to find your way as many first-generation students do, then search for resources and tools around campus that can support you.
Most, if not all of these resources, can be found on your school’s website under a tab named “Resources” or “Student Resources.” If you do not see the tab, then try searching for resources in the search bar on your school’s website.
Additionally, you can make an appointment with your academic advisor and they will provide a list for you to get started. First-generation students tend to forget about this resource. However, we will talk more about that in one of the following steps.
3. Talk with other first-generation college students
Talking with other first-generation college students is a fantastic way to learn from those who can identify with you and the struggles you may be facing. They understand what it is like to be “the first," or one of the only family members to face college struggles.
From my experience, I always went to first-generation students who were a few years ahead of me. This allowed me to ask the “what did you do when…” or “Have you ever experienced…” questions.
Model those who have gone before you and learn from their success and/or failures. A large part of being successful in college, regardless of your status, lies in your ability to network and form connections with people who are willing to help you get ahead.
You can also talk with other first-gen students who are in your university cohort. You never know how you can learn and grow from someone else’s story. Even from people who are at the same level as you. Everyone offers a unique perspective to the same situation.
It is quiet and usually drowned out by the opinions of those in our external environment. You have to be honest with yourself if you want to learn the wisdom this voice reveals. Some call it intuition, God, Allah, Higher Self, or Universe. It doesn’t matter what you call it, only that you recognize that it just is.
It is the part of your being that is all and is connected to all. The part of your consciousness that knows the way and is always waiting for you to ask for guidance.
4. Join a supportive community
The best part about being a college student is the endless opportunities you have to join a group or community of interest. There are various clubs around campus that you can join that are filled with students just like you!
Also, if you do not see any groups or clubs that you would like to join then you can always create your own club. If you get enough members to join, then you can get it registered at your university or community college. How cool is that?!
Never be afraid to look for communities outside of the campus community as well. You might find a church community that fits your needs or join a dancing community in the city.
Every community offers its own unique experiences, and it is up to you whether or not you will participate. But what do you have to lose? You are valuable and your experience matters. You just have to believe that for yourself as well.
So, get out there! Your college experience is a collaborative one, and it can be enhanced by the relationships that you build in the process. I wouldn’t be where I am today as a first-gen low-income Ivy League doctoral student if I did not take the time to form connections with people at my university.
5. Seek Out Mentorship
If you don’t read or remember anything from this article but one thing, PLEASE let it be this! Mentorship changes lives! It definitely changed mine for the better as a first-gen student.
However, seeking out mentorship took me stretching outside of my comfort zone. I really had to be confident in my ability to find a good mentor while I was in school.
I believe in learning from those who have achieved what you wish to achieve and modeling their successful behavior.
However, your mentor can come from practically anywhere. Trust me, you will need a mentor as a first gen student. It could be a professor, advisor, other first-generation students, or somewhere from a completely different institution.
6. Talk with your academic advisor
Do not be afraid to set up regular meetings with your academic advisor, many first gen students do! If you want to secure your college degree, then you must make sure that you are on track to graduate with your bachelor's degree.
In the college setting, it is easy to feel like you do not need support, especially when it seems like everyone else has it all figured it, but ASK FOR HELP. Your university degree doesn't mean much if you haven't grown as a person in the process. Check out my blog article on How To Get The Most Out Of Your Education for more on this topic.
7. Face feelings of self-doubt directly
In higher education, most students feel inadequate or have a sense of imposter syndrome. That's partly due to how we are socialized in today's society. On social media, most students seem like they have it all figured out, but sadly, they do not.
Recognize these feelings of self-doubt within yourself and seek help through counseling services. Other students feel the exact same way as you do. Most times, they are just too afraid to admit how they feel. Being first gen can add to those feelings, but that is nothing to be ashamed of.
8. Network with professors
Network! Network! Network! Have you ever heard the phrase: it's not about what you know but who you know. The same is true in higher education as well.
Your professors are people, just like you. Do not let your first gen status keep you from asking for help from your professors. They are there to help you and make sure that you finish college. Take advantage of this resource.
9. Take time to develop your mindset
I mention more about the importance of personal development in college in a previous blog post, but you do not want to miss this step.
“ What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” - Jane Goodall.
10. Understand that you matter
First-generation college students offer a unique perspective on campus. You can be a first-generation college graduate and change the trajectory of your whole life. You just have to believe that for yourself as well.
Whether you are obtaining an associate degree or bachelor's degree, make sure you show pride in where you are and approach the application process with confidence. Take advantage of financial aid and use the fact that you do not have a college-educated parent to your advantage.
Remember, your success is inevitable!