Advice for first-generation and low-income college students
1. Get to know your academic adviser
While it may seem like mostly a formality, your academic adviser can do much more than just sign off on your schedule for the upcoming year. They’re there to answer your questions, serve as a resource, and guide you. This means that if you have a question but don’t know who to ask, they can point you in the right direction. If you’re having a problem, they can offer advice and help advocate for you. But not all advisers are made the same, and fit is important. If you aren’t quite clicking with your academic adviser, consider making a switch when you find a professor you really like. The right person will believe in you, challenge you, and listen to your goals and priorities when offering guidance. Getting to know them has other benefits too: if they know you well, academic advisers can let you know about scholarship and internship opportunities, as well as nominate you for awards.
2. Go to office hours
Especially if you’re a first-generation college student, it might be hard to know when and why to make the leap and set foot in your professor’s office. When should you go? What if your question doesn’t make you seem smart? What if they think you didn’t work hard enough before asking for help? What if you don’t actually have any questions? Most of us have gotten to college and succeeded in part by powering through challenges, and while this work ethic is admirable, connecting with others and asking for help are important skills to develop now that you’re in college. There are many benefits to going to office hours and getting to know your professors, even if you don’t have questions or don’t feel ready to ask them just yet. You can always go and listen to questions other students have, and you might learn some tips and tricks along the way. Sometimes test questions are hinted at during office hours. If you experience difficulties in their course, professors are more likely to be flexible and work with a student who they view as present and engaged. If you do well or build a good relationship, they can serve as a mentor or write a letter of recommendation for you. You might also get invited to join their research lab, work on a paper with them, or wind up nominated for scholarships and awards in the professor’s department or field of study. These relationships are important, and it’s worth your time to invest in them.
3. Consider an on-campus job that lets you study or builds your résumé
If you’re the first in your family to go to college or you’re from a low-income background you’ll probably have a work-study job as part of your financial aid package. These jobs take many forms, from dishwashers and fitness center monitors to admissions office assistants or alumni outreach positions. If you get to choose your work-study position, consider applying to jobs that allow you to either study while working or strengthen your résumé by demonstrating skill, leadership, or responsibility. At Mount Holyoke College many students took jobs as monitors in our fitness center or as library assistants, because the periods of active responsibility were relatively infrequent, allowing students to complete readings and assignments between helping patrons. If you know what you’d like to do after you graduate from college, you can look for an on-campus job related to that. Premedical students can work as a campus EMT or volunteer in the student health center. Students interested in law, teaching, and literature can consider positions in the student writing center. Feel free to think broadly: anything that requires you to be responsible, professional, and demonstrate leadership or skill will look excellent on your résumé no matter what job or degree you pursue later on.
4. Join a team, club, or student organization that meets regularly.
Two of the most common worries around going off to college are finding friends and fitting in—after all, everyone needs a space where they feel comfortable and accepted. If you’re first generation or low income it can be especially easy to worry that you might feel out of place, or wonder if your background will make you stand out. Research also shows that for low-income college students, feeling a sense of belonging at your college or university makes a difference in how likely you are to graduate.1 Keep in mind that everyone feels a little out of place at first. It takes time to meet people and find friends, so hang in there and remind yourself that it’s normal if it takes a little while. Being new is hard, but it doesn’t last forever. One way to get connected and meet people outside of your classes or your dorm is to join a team, club, or student organization. You can choose something related to an interest you already have or you can try something brand new. Better yet, try several things and stick with the ones you like best. Most schools have sports tryouts (I walked onto the rowing team), weekly language dinner tables, career interest groups, hobby interest groups, volunteer groups, cultural and religious groups, and more. They usually meet regularly, so you’ll have something to look forward to during this period of transition. Even if you don’t stick with all the things you explore, you never know where you’ll find your newest friend or unexpected passion.
5. Seek out resources specifically for first-generation and low-income college students
These days, many colleges and universities know first-generation and low-income college students have unique strengths, perspectives, and challenges their peers may not. Consequently, a number of schools have student groups, organizations, and advising offices designed to serve you and meet your needs. If possible, look for schools that have programs like this when choosing where to attend. It shouldn’t make or break your decision, but it can help you decide. After you’ve committed to a school, check out what they have to offer, and get connected early. Even if you’re not sure whether it’ll be helpful, try to go to a few events or make an appointment to chat with someone. If your school doesn’t have something like this, don’t worry—there are many resources on the internet for first-generation and low-income college students, and it’s in your best interest to seek them out. They can offer advice, tips, inspiration, and even community. A great place to start is the #WeBelongInCollege campaign from getschooled.com.
- “Fitting In” and Rising Graduation Rates at UT Austin https://www.future-ed.org/work/fitting-in-and-rising-graduation-rates-at-ut-austin/
Catie Havemann, a first-generation college graduate from a low-income background, is originally from rural Northern California. She is currently a medical student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in the class of 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @CatieHavemann, where she enjoys connecting with aspiring college and medical students of all backgrounds, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college or from working-class and low-income backgrounds.