Entering College As A First-Generation Student

by Isaac Mei

Entering College As A First-Generation Student

Your first semester of college. Intimidating, right? What might be more intimidating is tackling this all-important semester as a first-generation student. First-generation college students are defined as students whose parents or guardians have not completed a bachelor’s degree. If this aligns with your personal experience, feel free to keep reading. If it doesn’t, well, maybe keep reading anyway (the information will be beneficial, we promise!).

We partnered up with F1rst Gen Mason (a student organization at George Mason focusing on the success of first-generation college students) to give you some tips that should help ease you through your first semester of college and beyond.

1 – Take advantage of resources BEFORE you step on campus in August.

Even though you haven’t taken your first class yet, there are still steps you can take to ensure that you’re well prepared to start college off on the right foot.

“As a high school senior that was about to be a first-generation college student, the hardest part about being the first in my family was not knowing where to find resources. My senior year I visited my guidance counselor every single day whether it was just for a quick update or for an extensive lesson about how to complete the FAFSA.” – Sancia Celestin, F1rst Gen Mason.

“Before coming to Mason, I had the privilege of being able to join the Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) 2015 cohort, where I was able to get a taste of the lifestyle and pressures of a college environment. During the program, I was able to adjust to a college workload and step out of my comfort zone in classes.”– Andy Tapia, F1rst Gen Mason.

Let’s break that down.

As a first-generation student, try your best to look for programs and resources that are created specifically for you. As Sancia mentioned, going to your high school guidance counselor for advice on application requirements/deadlines, the FAFSA, and scholarship information is a solid first step. After all, that’s what they’re there for! Once you’ve been accepted and enrolled at a university (let’s just say, for example’s sake, you enrolled at Mason), browse through the school’s website to see what resources may be available when you first step on campus. For example, both Andy and Sancia joined the Student Transition Empowerment Program. STEP is an initiative in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education (ODIME) that was created to enhance the experience of first-generation college students accepted to Mason. The program helps students with their development of academic skills, gives them access to resources, and helps foster a community.

2 – Find a mentor.

As you meet upperclassmen, graduate students, and work with different professors and staff members, some first-generation students have benefitted by finding someone who can serve as a resource when you have questions or are contemplating important decisions for your college education. Mentors can help guide you, connect you with new opportunities, and even advise you on programs and organizations that will help strengthen your resume. Having a mentor can prove to be incredibly valuable. Don’t forget, most of them have been through college as well and understand what you’re experiencing, and should be able to answer most of the questions. Even if they can’t, they will be able to point you in the right direction. Finding someone to take you under their wing isn’t just important for first-generation students, but is actually something that’s recommended for all freshmen beginning their first semester of college.

3 – Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

A big mistake that a majority of college students make is thinking that because they’re away from home they have to do everything entirely on their own. While college is the time for you to become more self-sufficient and step out of your comfort zone, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to ask for someone else’s help. In fact, that’s actually the wise thing to do.

There are plenty of different offices and student organizations that are made to help you as soon as you step on campus. Whether it’s organizations like F1rst Gen Masonor offices like the Center for Academic Advising, Retention, and Transitions, people are there to help when you need it. As a college freshman, you won’t be expected to do everything on your own. Everyone needs assistance from time to time, you might just need to be willing to look for it.

4 – Time management is half the battle.

No matter how involved you are, college is going to seem like you’re always swamped with things to do. The best way to get around that? Good time management skills.

You might be taking anywhere from 12 to 18 credits a semester, working a part time job, and participating in multiple student organizations (not to mention trying to have a social life). It’s important to prioritize the obligations in your life correctly and then go from there. Chances are, your classes are going to overlap with homework, quizzes, and tests, so check your syllabi frequently to make sure you’re staying on top of deadlines and turning things in on time. Get a planner or a calendar, write out your schedule, and stick to it. If you’ve designated a certain time in the day between classes where you’ll go to the library and get homework done, be sure you’re making the most of that time. You’re going to be amazed at how manageable your busy life will be if you’re organizing your time appropriately.

5 – Money, money, money.

Living life as a broke college student is almost like a rite of passage for everyone, so it’s never too early to start budgeting and figuring out the best ways to both spend and save your money. Being responsible with your finances will carry over into your life when you graduate and get a full-time job or go to graduate school. Yes, it may be tempting to want to go out to eat five nights a week with different groups of friends, but is it really worth racking up the extra credit card debt that you’ll have to pay off later? Remember, a university’s student body is a combination of individuals from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds. Some might simply have more cash to spend than others. Don’t get me wrong, it’s vitally important for you to have fun, be social, and treat yourself every now and then. However, it’s also entirely okay to say no to your friends sometimes (and not feel bad about it) when they ask you to go out.

6 – Be smart with your friends.

Speaking of friends and being social, college is the best time to branch out and meet all kinds of people from different backgrounds with different experiences. There’s a good chance that some of the friends you’ll make in college will be your lifelong friends because of the experiences you’ll have together. Not only that, but these are the individuals you’re choosing to surround yourself with during a critical point in your life. With that being said, choose your friends wisely. Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with supportive, goal-oriented individuals who can be there for you and remind you that no matter how stressful and crazy your life might seem – that it’s all going to be okay.

7 – Hard work will get you further.

There’s a saying I learned my first week in college that has always stuck with me: “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Truth be told, that statement couldn’t be more accurate. No matter what field of study you’re in, there’s a good chance you’ll come across someone who seems to be smarter or more talented than you. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s just what college is. The further along you go in your college career, though, the more you’ll realize that talent and natural ability can only get you so far. Hard work is what’s going to get you to that next level and help you make the most out of your college experience. As a first-generation student, remember how hard you worked to get into college. That same work ethic, attitude, and grit is what’s going to help you conquer the next few years and beyond.