The Advice I Wish I’d Been Given As A First-Generation College Student
Many contributors to TFD have spoken before about the struggles of being a first-generation college student. The college process, from application to graduation, can be confusing, overwhelming, and disheartening.
I fumbled through the process by signing papers handed to me without asking questions about what I didn’t understand, while the admissions staff assumed I had high school counselors or parents to explain it all to me. If I could go back and tell my 18-year old self anything, I would tell her to ask for help.
This is something I struggle with in a lot of areas of my life. Often, my innate feeling is that asking for help is somehow equivalent to admitting defeat. Of course, the older I get, the more I realize that asking for help is a strategic and necessary tactic for taking on new challenges. People are, more times than not, willing (or even excited) to help one another out. But, at 18, I certainly wasn’t comfortable with going to my university and seeking additional resources.
In fact, I was clueless even to programs designed to make asking for help easier for first-generation students like myself. For example, it wasn’t until after I had graduated and my brother was going to university that he informed me about the program TRiO — a service that offers additional support to students with certain socioeconomic backgrounds and disabilities, as well as first-generation students. Even though I fit two of the three criteria, no one ever told me about this program. I was bitter at first that this hadn’t been pointed out to me, but later realized a simple Google search of my university’s support services would have also gotten me to their page.
The thing is, I wasn’t looking for any program to help myself. My brother was older when he attended college and asked the admissions office if they had any assistance for first-generation students. Speaking with graduates now who utilized TRiO, I know I missed out on some serious financial and social opportunities. I also missed out on networking opportunities that would have better prepared me for graduate school and the workforce.
Similarly, I never pushed the financial aid office or admissions office to sweeten my aid package. I wrote previously about how asking my graduate program for more money resulted in a $5,000 scholarship. But for undergrad, I went to university in Illinois and the state budget crisis was in full swing at the time. My university was putting more financial burden on the students as we waited for a state budget to pass for years. This meant students I knew who entered into my program only a year earlier had much larger financial aid packages, despite my high GPA, ACT score, and local residency. I still wonder today if I could have reduced the burden of paying for my degree by being bold and asking point-blank.
I also didn’t make the most of my money by building those lifelong friendships you expect from university. I was a commuter student and often opted to drive home instead of sticking around after class to study in common spaces with other people in my program. I didn’t join student organizations to build relationships or broaden my knowledge because I didn’t want to commit to driving back to campus in the evenings. While some of this was justifiable due to work schedule conflicts, I often made excuses for myself as to why I wasn’t participating in organizations. Many had attendance requirements to be a part of the organization, and instead of explaining my situation and asking for leeway, I chose not to participate at all. As a result, I didn’t expand my social circle or make those deep connections that are cited as one of the best aspects of college life.
Lastly, I should have asked for help in understanding finances in general (TFD wasn’t around yet and is a big reason I finally got serious about money). I could have done this through TRiO or even spoken with an advisor and clearly laid out what I did and didn’t know. For example, I remember clicking to accept my federal loans and taking whatever I was offered instead of only what I needed. This has been addressed previously on The Financial Diet and is one of my biggest financial mistakes. I never asked for less than the max I was given. Too overwhelmed by the process, I just accepted whatever came my way and used what was leftover for study abroad, traveling, or a new laptop. Considering I was working two jobs, living at home for some of the time, and had a small scholarship from a local foundation, I am paying off some student loans that I know went to entertainment in undergrad. And I’m paying $100 in interest every month because of those past decisions.
Overall, looking back on undergrad, it really seemed like a whirlwind of misguidance and poor financial decisions. No one should expect you to understand the implications of college costs fully at such a young age, especially if you’re the first in your family to attend. Rural high schools don’t offer sufficient college counseling, basic finances aren’t always taught in high school, and society says you should go and you’ll be in debt when you do. But take a deep breath, come to terms with the fact that you’re overwhelmed (and that it’s okay), and ask for help. Seek an advisor, a professor, or an alum to talk to. People want you to succeed, and you owe it to yourself to do that in the most cost-effective way possible.
Rebecca Vaughn is a podcast enthusiast, award travel whiz-in-the-making, and graduate student at Indiana University working on an MPA. She can be found on Instagram (@thisisbecker).
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