Finding Your Support System: Advice from a First-Generation Student
I was told from a very young age that I was going to college, there was no other option. My dad had enrolled in a state college when he was young but didn’t earn a degree while my mom and two older brothers started working right out of high school. None of that mattered though, I was going to college and that was the end of it.
Starting my junior year of high school, or perhaps even earlier without my realizing it, my dad began researching - studying for the SATs, GPA requirements, admissions procedures, potential schools - trying as hard as he could to fill in our family’s knowledge gap. His hard work and the rest of my family’s unwavering belief that this is what I had to do, I was successfully admitted into a number of schools.
It wasn’t until I actually walked on campus that I finally felt the impact of being the first in my family to really attend college. No amount of research from my dad could prepare me for the feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome, for the “insider knowledge” of where to find support on campus that everybody but me seemed to know.
I started off worried that if I asked the questions I had I would automatically be out of place on campus and when I finally gained the confidence to actually ask I realized, I have no idea who to ask. So, I just moved forward the best I could, trying to listen and learn as I went to class or practice. It took some time, more time than I would have liked, but I slowly understood how to ask for support and where that could come from.
There are a lot of things I wish I had been told before I stepped on campus for the first time and there are even more things I wish I had known as I moved through my first few years, but I’m happy that I am now in a position to help students who feel just like me. Below I’ve included a few pieces of advice I hope will help any fellow first-generation students find their support system on campus.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions right away. When you first come on campus you’ll likely have a point of contact, whether it’s a more senior student or a staff member, there will be somebody you talk to right away. You can ask that person questions even if you’re not sure it’s their job or if they’ll know the answer. They are there to support you, so even if they can’t answer you right away they will definitely be able to point you in the direction of somebody who can. I’ve learned that the ability to ask questions is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness, so take a deep breath and just ask.
Explore your school’s website. Some school websites can be difficult to navigate but they contain a plethora of information you won’t be able to find elsewhere. Start by looking for key campus resources like the health center, career center, student activity center and student advising center. You don’t need to take advantage of what they have to offer right away, but finding and familiarizing yourself with these offices will help you in the long run. If you’re not sure how to find some of these resources talk to a professor or a more senior student - keep my first piece of advice in mind and just ask the question.
Find a way to stay engaged on campus. You will likely be inundated with emails and posters trying to get you to join one club or another and it’s okay to be overwhelmed. The easiest way to get your feet wet is to find a club or activity that mirrors your high school interests. Did you play sports in high school? Try an intramural team. Did you often volunteer? Find a club that works with the local community. Clubs and teams are expecting a drop off in commitment from folks as the year goes on and first-year students figure out their workload and interests. It’s okay to join something early on to see what it’s like and decide that it’s not for you. The most important part is taking the first step to get involved, it will make each step afterward that much easier.
While this isn’t a comprehensive list of advice to navigate college as a first-generation student, I believe they are key stepping stones to finding your on-campus support system. A strong support system will make it infinitely easier to persist through college despite any internal doubts and external pressures.
EWAAB and I are more than happy to be the first in your support system, so take advantage of the support and resources we have to offer.
Sam Collins is the Chief Executive Officer of Encouraging Women Across All Borders. She holds multiple degrees including a BA from Union College, NY, an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University and a Graduate Certificate from Northeastern University. She describes herself as an educator, advocate, auntie and climber and is always excited to take a new challenge, even if it's a bit scary.