Wednesday, June 4, 2014

First Generation College Students

Are you the first person in your family to go to college? I was and I know that navigating the world of college applications, financial aid, academic requirements, etc. was very challenging. Every form we filled out seemed like a never-ending maze of questions. I received some financial aid and some loans so I had to sort all of that out. I was going to live on campus so I had to learn all the tricks and tips for dorm life. Luckily, I had declared a major so I had a path for my academic goals. However, I still had to pick those pesky general education requirements (theater or art? philosophy or literature?).
If you are or you know someone who is a first-generation college student, you know the difficulties you will face. Lots and lots of questions. Lots and lots of uncertainty. You may even feel isolated. You may have concerns about the financial burdens of school. You may have pressure to do more at home causing you to feel conflicted about going to college.
The plight of a first-generation college student is most eloquently stated by community college graduate, author, speaker, and student advocate Isa Adney. Watch this video of her speech for the Guttman Community College orientation at the New York Public Library.

Based on Adney’s advice and my own experience, here are 5 tips for anyone who is starting college and does not have someone to help them through the process:
1.       Find a mentor.  He or she does not need to be a “professional” by any means. It could even be a student, just someone who has been through college before and can help you.  College instructors are a good option though and if you are lucky enough to identify a mentor who is a professional, he or she will also be an invaluable resource for networking, career advice, and general life advice.
2.       Get involved.  Every college or university has a plethora of clubs, organizations, and sports teams on their campus. The more involved you are, the more connected you feel and the less likely you are to drop out of school.  SCC even has a student activities office where you can hang out, play pool, and find out about upcoming events on campus.
3.       Seek answers.  You will have questions, about everything. I guarantee you that there are several people on any college campus who can answer your questions. From financial aid counselors to tutors, career counselors, to accessibility staff, resources and information abound. You just have to ask!
4.       Balance. College can be a difficult transition from high school, or even from working full time. If you plan to work while in college, you will need to figure out how to balance class attendance, out of class assignments, projects, and papers, and your work. If you also have family obligations, that will be one more thing to balance. The better you are at balancing, the better you will do in college.
5.       Seek support. You are not the only first-generation college student on your campus. Find others.  Talk to your classmates. Set up study groups. Get together after class for coffee. Don’t just go to class and then back home or to your dorm. College is a time to meet new people. So put that smart phone down and look up. Don’t miss out on all the opportunities for socialization and support.
If you want to help a first-generation college student, here are some tips for you:
1.       Students don’t know what they don’t know. Don’t assume they walk in your classroom, office, or building knowing all the cool college lingo (FAFSA, gen ed, syllabus, etc.).
2.       Provide information that is easily accessible and easy to understand (don’t just tell them to “go to the website”—walk them through the process or email them a link to a specific web page).
3.       Put yourself in their shoes. First generation college students have a lot of fears, anxieties, etc. Consider what that might feel like and then treat them accordingly.
In the video, Isa Adney mentions waiting in the academic advising officer and then being greeted by friendly advisor who helped her. SCC is known for being a friendly place. We’re here to help!

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