3 Things I Wish I Knew As A First-Generation College Student

Growing up, my parents insisted I go to college — I think in their minds, foregoing a college education almost certainly meant financial uncertainty and squandered talent. My mother, a high school graduate, and my father, an eighth-grade dropout, didn’t know much about the ivory tower of academia, but they seemed certain that it would provide a better life for me. With a better life in mind, they insisted on college with the same fervor they did vegetables during childhood dinners.

Today I have a slew of degrees, starting with an associate’s degree from one of Utah’s local community colleges, two bachelor’s of science degrees from the University of Utah, and finally, a master’s degree from Westminster College (a small, private, liberal arts school tucked into an affluent neighborhood in Salt Lake City). I do not regret my education, but every month I cringe when I log in to see that I have $73,000 in student loan debt. I feel an intense shame for the amount of debt I have, especially looking back with the realization that I could’ve avoided almost $20,000 of it with better spending habits. Here are a few things I wish someone would have told me when I started my postsecondary journey.

1. Do not spend leftover student loan funds on luxury items.

“Everyone has a student loan TV.” – My best friend on the phone last week.

I wish she was wrong, but most of the people I know have had a television set or a vacation paid for by student loans. Perhaps those televisions are a marker of our privilege, but it feels more like a sign of spending habits born of lower class upbringings. The 32” Samsung I purchased at Best Buy seemed like a great treat at the time of purchase, and with leftover student loan funds, I felt flush with cash and drunk on the illusion that I’d never have to pay that money back. But today, every time I log in to my Fed Loan account, I hate to think how much that television actually cost me. I can’t even remember when I got rid of the damn thing, but chances are, I’m still paying for it.

I implore you, nineteen-year-olds, don’t spend extra loan money on a trip to Costa Rica. Don’t buy the newest iPhone. Immediately pay back the money you don’t need.

2. Do not accept more loan funds than you need.

I accepted more money than I needed every single semester of my college career. It pains me to put that into words on a screen, but it’s the truth. Time and time again, the vagaries of interest and the distant prospect of repayment compounded to result in taking more money than I needed for tuition. I needed $5,000, but I happily took $7,500. I would justify it with talk about textbook costs and computer programs, but in the end I’d make the dumb mistake above — I’d buy something “luxurious” that I didn’t need.

As a kid who didn’t grow up with a lot of money, I was drunk on the idea of having thousands of extra dollars, but I didn’t do anything worthwhile with it. The fact is, the temptation of spending excess money is too great for most (and congratulations if that sentence doesn’t apply to you). Just skip the trap altogether, and only take what you need when offered loan assistance.

3. Don’t be afraid to slow down on classes

With little guidance on how to start planning my college career, I continually piled on overwhelming class loads after my first year (I did heed some invaluable advice of attending part-time my first year). I would pack my schedule with courses similar to the way a starving person would pack their plate if given free entry into an all-you-can-eat buffet. I still don’t know if it was fear that the ride might end unexpectedly, or if it was just what I thought you were supposed to do when you became a university student, but there were semesters where the results were catastrophic.

I worked full-time during my entire postsecondary career; couple that with trying to maintain a social life, a lack of study skills, and poor time management. I failed two full semesters of college: one at Salt Lake Community College, and one at the University of Utah. I needed to retake some of the classes to graduate, and I felt compelled to retake for better grades in others. The result? I spent at least $4,500 taking the same classes twice, because I didn’t pace myself properly, or listen to my instincts to slow down.

Both semesters where I failed started out with a gut feeling to not attend for the semester or to take fewer courses, but I didn’t listen to that voice inside. If you feel like you need a break, take it. Ignore the cries of “If you stop, you won’t go back,” and take care of yourself, because it could cost you in the end.

*****

I do not regret going to college. My gender studies (yes, gender studies) degree changed my life, and my master’s degree has enabled me to get jobs I could only dream of before. But I do regret the way I borrowed money. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have any financial assistance with education, and through no fault of their own, my parents weren’t able to provide much in the way of financial advice. If my story can help prevent one student loan TV, or ease the pressure of taking 12 credit hours per semester, then it’s worth it — even when paying $600 per month towards loans still feels like hell.

Chelsea Kilpack is a marketing professional living in Salt Lake City, UT. When she’s not going on feminist rants, she’s doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and going on walks with her husband and dog. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Great story . . . also a 1st generation college student in the 90s . . . I’ve been there. And more than 20 years later, I wouldn’t do it any differently. The opportunity and value that my Education has provided me and my family is priceless. Best. Investment. Ever.

  • Ashley Derum

    Wow. This resonates with me so deeply. I, too, was a 1st gen college student (and eventually grad) with no concept of how much my student debt would impact me in the years to follow graduation. I made the same mistakes– as well as another I think is worth noting. At 18, I certainly wasn’t ready to make the decision about “what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” The result was a college career spent hopping from major to major trying to find the perfect fit and, consequently, lengthening the time I spent in school and the amount of debt I gathered. Oy vey.

  • Christian Gonzales

    I relate to this piece so hard!! I sometimes get a little bitter that I made such poor decisions with my student loans and the fact that my parents didn’t do anything to stop me, but the fact is they had no idea. They learned the application process as I did, and are just as bitter about my debt load, if not more. We both just had no idea how it would impact my lift for the next ~8 years, or on a month to month basis. I try to educate my younger siblings as much as I can on the same three points you lined out, and will be sending them this piece!