Heading off to college can be a daunting experience for anyone. But when you’re the first person in your family to achieve this big milestone, the pressure can feel tenfold and the doubts, endless. Will I pass my classes? How do I take out student loans? Do I even belong here?
While the unique challenges faced by first-generation college students are real, there are practical steps students can take to make the transition to college easier. Chapman University students Victor Jacinto ’23, and Clarissa Cordova ’20, share insider tips for first-generation success and making the most of the college experience.
1. Embrace the first-gen identity
As a first-gen student, you might feel reluctant to share about your family’s college history. But instead of hiding your background, embrace it, says Jacinto. Leverage your story to get access into your school’s first-gen club and other similar resources tailored exclusively for first-gen students.
“Being the first in your family to attend college means you don’t exactly know what it’s going to be like in terms of academic and social environments. For me, joining programs like Chapman’s First-Generation Ambassadors helped make the transition a lot easier and helped me find my place at Chapman,” he says. Adds Cordova, the first-gen community at Chapman is a very strong one. “Just know you’re joining a community of people that supports one another, so be ready to join a big family.”
2. “Find Your People”
It’s always more comforting to navigate the unknowns of college life with friends by your side. “Sometimes you feel like an imposter, like maybe college isn’t the best fit for you,” says Jacinto. “But that’s only because you haven’t found your people – those who you can share the experience with and who can reassure you that you do, in fact, belong,” he said. Don’t worry about fitting in. Be open about who you are and what your interests are, and you’ll attract friends with more ease.
3. Plug into a network
Getting plugged into student organizations and clubs is a key way to start building networks of support. The reality is that once you’re out of college, who you know is arguably just as important as your GPA. So, start talking to people and cultivating relationships. “Take advantage of the people you meet through networking because they can be a source of help later on,” says Cordova.
4. Step outside your comfort zone
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and try new things,” says Jacinto. “I never expected to be on the executive board of First-Gen Ambassadors, but by getting involved with the program and working with other members of the executive board, I earned the position.” Cordova says that joining Chapman’s University’s Promising Futures program inspired her to start Chapman’s First-Generation Ambassadors. Her desire to connect with more first-gen students across campus eventually became a defining moment in her college career. “This club influenced my college experience tremendously because it led me to work with a community of people that support and encourage one another.”
5. Make the most out of office hours
If you’re ever feeling confused during a lecture but are too shy to ask a question, don’t stress. Professors’ office hours can be a productive time to ask questions in a low-stress setting. If you feel intimidated about meeting with your professor, try preparing in advance: make a list of the questions you have or the topics you’d like to cover. As a bonus, attending office hours is also a great way to help ensure your professors know who you are. This type of visibility will come in handy if you ever, for instance, need a letter of recommendation.
6. Be Money Wise
Applying for student loans can get pretty overwhelming for anyone. You may be offered a larger loan amount than you’ll actually need. So, before you sign on the dotted line, it’s critical that you do your research. Visit your financial aid office and ask questions about everything from the type of loan you’re taking out to what payments will look like in the future. The more financial education you have, the better equipped you’ll be to handle student loans responsibly.
7. Advocate for yourself
As a first-generation student, there’s often an underlying fear that if you ask for support, you might be singled out as someone who doesn’t belong. Cordova advises to lay aside the fear. Be relentless in getting the answers you need. “Always advocate for yourself. Email everyone you know when you need something. Someone has the answer. There are always resources available, so make sure you leave no stone unturned.” Keep yourself at the center of your college journey.
Learn more about First-Generation programs at Chapman.