Currently, I am well on my way to a Panic at the Disco style, ”Hey Look Ma I Made It” moment when I walk across the stage in December. When I do so, I will be the first person in my family to have successfully pursued formal education beyond high school and collect a four-year degree (in 3 and a half years!). The journey to get here hasn’t been an easy one. College inherently comes with a boatload of hardships, but it’s made even harder when no one in your family has ever done it either. Here are a few things I wish I would have known as a first-generation college student.
- College is Hard
Balancing schoolwork, a part-time job, a decent social life, and all the resume building extra-curriculars you can think of is difficult. Everyone talks about how college is “the time of your life” but no one mentions how much stress it all entails. I’ve had a lot of great experiences at Susquehanna, but I’ve also had my fair share of mental breakdowns while I was at it. Without someone in your family who did the whole college thing, you might not realize this ahead of time. The keys to a quality college experience are time management, saying no, and taking time to take care of yourself. No one told me that from the start and it took me awhile to figure it out on my own.
- You Belong as Much As Everyone Else Does
It’s very easy as a college student to compare your situation to the students around you. You’ll find yourself in circles of students who don’t need financial aid, whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents all went to college, who get invited to special legacy dinners at your university for having parents and family members who are alumni. Having student loans or parents who don’t understand how college works does not make you less deserving of taking up space on your college campus. You belong there even when it feels like you don’t. You are never the only first-generation college student in a space. You just have to find your people and they will understand.
- Senior Year of College is Worse than Senior Year of High School
Maybe I was naïve, but I really thought for a while that the stress and uncertainty of my senior year of high school was going to be the worst of my confusion over the future. I was lost in a world of everyone telling me I should go to college, but no one knowing where or how to get there. Turns out senior year of college is a lot of the same. A lot of people are talking about grad school, and I’m not sure that’s a move I want to make or that would even be best for me. I wouldn’t even know where to start when it comes to getting there. I should probably get a job. I don’t know what kind of job or what industry I should be looking in. My parents don’t really have that many suggestions. Just like senior year of high school, I’m hopelessly confused as to where to go next, but that’s totally okay. Being anxious and panicked over the future is okay no matter what stage of life you’re in.
- How Student Loans Work
As much as I stand by the fact that the cheapest school isn’t always the best school, the price tag is something that could potentially follow you for years to come. I know my student loans are there, and I know I have until 6 months after I graduate to start paying on them, but I don’t know how much I’ll have to pay each month. I didn’t have anyone to tell me where to look for the best interest rates or the best “deals” on student loans. My parents and I just kind of went for it and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The reality of my student loans after graduation is completely unknown. Do your research. Find someone who knows. Talk to your financial aid office at your school. Just because it doesn’t matter now, doesn’t mean it won’t matter later.
- The Price Tag is About More Than Just Money
When you’re 16, 17, or 18 years old looking at schools and their price tags, it’s hard to rationalize what the numbers mean. I was told time and time again that Susquehanna and private schools are too expensive. In the end, I ignored all of that and came here anyway. I’m sure that my loans will absolutely be an issue that haunts me for years to come, but there is so much I got from Susquehanna that wouldn’t have been possible had I chose to go to the school with the best financial aid package. Study abroad and the unique nature of our Creative Writing program didn’t exist at those other schools. Creative Writing, in general, didn’t even exist there. I really wish someone would have told me that the environment, programs, community, and resources at a school mean just as much as the price tag when choosing where to go.
Being the first member of your family to go to college is a huge accomplishment. No matter how long it takes you to make it through your program or how many mentors and advisors you have to seek out along the way, know that your family and so many others are proud of you for making it through!