How to Survive College as a First-generation Student

By Marilou Terrones, M.A.

You did it—you graduated from high school and are continuing the journey of your ancestors.

The next few years will be eye-opening, meaningful, and adventurous. College will expose you to different cultures, introduce you to long-life friends, and help you start your career.

Whether you’re anxious, excited, or afraid of how your college experience will turn out, here are some key things to keep in mind:

  • Build a relationship with your professors. Clarify what you think you know, question what you’re told, explore different interests, and, most importantly, network with your professors. They’ve been in the game for a while, so they can share tips and tricks they learned along the way. Even if they don’t have answers right away, professors are great listeners and can help you process the changes that come with attending a university.
  • Find your niche and make it your home. Your support system at school will either make you or break you as you navigate a space you’re unfamiliar with. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and interact with people who share similar interests. If your goals align with the goals of those around you, then you’ll be motivated to go the extra mile. Plus, nobody understands you like those who are in the same physical and mental space as you are. Your family will never give up on you, but your friends know your struggle because they’re living it too.
  • Set goals and hold yourself accountable. You can’t plan your entire college experience, but you can prepare for it. Your goals don’t have to be related to school and they can change as you go, but having a starting point will help you stay on track. Friendly reminder: while you may feel like you have to accomplish this and that for your family and community, it’s important to do things you’re excited about. Yes, being a first-generation student is a big deal, but don’t let it dictate everything you do. This is the perfect time to start becoming who you want to be.
  • Advocate for yourself. Don’t take no for an answer. The truth is not everyone will be invested in your growth, making it hard for you to thrive, but don’t let anybody or any experience discourage you from doing what you’re passionate about. Ask questions, take chances, and, if not available, create opportunities. Do your research and fight for your seat at the table. You didn’t get into college out of luck; you got in because you’ve worked hard, so don’t forget you’re just as capable as those around you.

While these tips can be helpful for any student looking to make it through college alive, they are especially important for first-generation students who are the first in their family to navigate the academic space. Our family’s lack of education can often make it hard to receive the necessary guidance to help us through this experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Acknowledge your family’s effort to support you and remember they can only share words of wisdom. Take this experience and make it your own, so future generations can learn from your journey.

Marilou Terrones is a social media enthusiast and professional who is passionate about multicultural storytelling. She recently graduated from DePaul University with an M.A. in Public Relations & Advertising.

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