Advice for First-Generation College Students, From One

As a new school year approaches, young people from around the country prepare to take their first steps into adulthood by heading off to their freshmen year of college. For most, it is both exciting and terrifying. Although parental restrictions will fall by the wayside (no more imposed bedtimes or demands to eat more vegetables), the safety net starts to fray and suddenly responsibilities that might have been assumed by Mom and Dad now fall to the student. These responsibilities include how to negotiate the college learning environment, which can be especially challenging for first-generation college students.

I remember the utter bewilderment of my first year of college. No one in my family had graduated from high school much less gone to college, so I had no guide to help me along. No big sister had already settled in ahead of me. No friend was around to go through the process with me. Instead, I relied on my natural cravings for knowledge and a great deal of kindness to navigate the many facets of that first year.

As I head into my 22nd year of college teaching, I have developed some tips that first-gen college students can use to do their best freshman year:

n Roommate problems are one of the most significant challenges college students face. Do your best to get along with your roommate but know that there are offices on campus that can help you if you find yourself in an unbearable situation. Resident Assistants (RAs) are usually the first stop in solving disputes. Your RA will listen to both sides of the story and attempt to find solutions. If your relationship to your roommate interferes with your studies or your quality of life, reach out.

n If you discover that you are struggling with study skills, ask your adviser where you can turn for help. Colleges offer a wide array of services to help their students excel in their classes, including writing centers, math tutors, study skills builders and so much more. Do not suffer through your first semester when help is available.

n For many new students, the stress of the first semester away from home can be overwhelming. If you need someone to talk with, seek out your college counseling center. They provide free or low-cost peer and professional counselors who can help you learn productive ways of managing your stress and other issues. Go before you get behind on your work.

n Time management is an enormous hurdle as well. Finding a balance between socializing and completing course work can fell even the best-intentioned freshman. Using a paper or online planner can limit all-night cramming sessions and prevent poor grades for missed assignments. The temptation to spend too much time with friends is one nearly every student faces, but turning some hang-out sessions into group study sessions can lesson anxiety and still allow social time.

n Incoming freshmen often fear their professors in part because they are unsure of expectations and even college decorum. Keep in mind that we exist to help you. Read the syllabus. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Be courteous in emails (use “Dear Professor,” not “Hey”) and drop in on your professors’ office hours. We want students to ask for our help and are happy to provide it. Show us you are working hard, and we will give you the tools you need to turn that hard work into success.

Your college years should be among your happiest memories. Don’t allow your fears of the unknown to interfere with your learning or your fun. Imagine how proud your family and friends will be when you become the first college graduate in your family. Have a great freshmen year!

Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania and a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University. She lives in Wheeling.

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