first in class

Adapting to a new society with different customs and languages is difficult for anyone, and it gets even tougher when you bring the educational system and career prospects into the picture. There are thousands of youths trying to find their way throughout the college application process, whether they have been born here and have migrant parents or migrated from a different country. Still, one thing they have in common is that they are pioneers in pursuing higher education. This can be an exciting journey, but at the same time, a source of anxiety and confusion as many kids are lost in navigating the college and job application process.

I have been in a similar situation and empathize with these fears since I migrated to the United States at the age of 6 and completed my bachelor’s degree not very long ago. This journey is a long one that requires lots of effort and forces us to grow up quickly, but hopefully, the tips below can offer some guidance and reassurance.

1. Confidence and Acceptance

Why is confidence in yourself and acceptance of your identity so critical to this journey? Because it will allow you to view your situation as a motivation to keep pushing forward. As first-gen youths, we are facing a major disadvantage in not having a guide to help us establish a life for ourselves here, and we lack the knowledge in obtaining a college degree. It’s easy to get discouraged and forget about our dreams or aspirations, but a strong mindset for yourself is key. Think of this as an opportunity to open the gates of prosperity for you and your family. There is joy in knowing you can be the one to accomplish a major goal despite whatever hardships you face, which is something not many can say they have achieved. You have a unique perspective to bring into your education and future career, but you can’t bring it if you don’t strive for your dreams.

Accept that you lack exposure to certain things. It is easy to feel as if you are less than others who have had that knowledge handed to them at an early age. I felt this way in both high school and college. I wasn’t aware of the importance of extracurriculars to help me develop myself as a person and how key it is to the college application process. I saw many of my peers join sports and clubs outside of school, but since I had not been exposed to any of this and didn’t have the resources to pay for these activities, I spent most of my middle school years only focusing on academics. Once I got to high school and was figuring things out, I joined tennis, but I was not very good at it as I lacked athletic skills that could have been cultivated at a younger age. You don’t have to be good at these activities, but trying is enough to help you explore the multitude of hobbies out there.

2. Goals and Research

Many of us grow up thinking that the only careers we can choose are doctor or lawyer; our families usually think that these are the only choices a “professional” can have. In modern times, there is a whole world of professions a person can pursue, from the typical doctor (not limited to medicine) to web developer to consultant and many more! I highly encourage first-gen youths to research the different types of careers out there and to not limit themselves to the norms. I wish I would have known about software engineering or product design when I was younger, as I would have explored my interest in the tech field at an earlier age rather than doing so during my first/second year of college. Do not feel afraid to explore interests that seem difficult or that you don’t feel equipped for. I will give a little anecdote about myself and a mistake I made when I was younger so that you don’t do the same:

I went to a decent public high school in a regular middle-class town; it offered a good variety of classes and allowed students to choose the AP classes they wanted to take. I remember I saw “AP Computer Science” in my class catalog and was a bit intrigued but thought that this was too difficult, so I shrugged it off. Fast forward to the summer before entering college, and I kept hearing about the buzz surrounding coding, so I decided to take an introductory class to Python (a coding language) my first semester. The class was hard for me to put it lightly; I struggled as this was the first time I had even learned anything about coding, let alone actually doing it. I started college as a different major, but the challenges of this class also intrigued me, and by the end of my freshman year, I actually decided to major in Information Science. This was such a wide leap for me when I reflected back on my thinking during high school.

The path to learning something new and jumping into a new interest will not be easy, I can guarantee that, but it is worth the try, and the more you do your research beforehand, the easier it will be. It is also good to figure out what your interests are at an early age and to determine what your situation is. I do push for people to obtain a college degree, but the reality is that it is not for everyone, and that is okay. If you personally don’t think that college is a good option, then try out trade school. You can gain some valuable hands-on experience there and learn a trade that will benefit you and be a security blanket in the long run. Obtaining some kind of degree will be a great help since you can prove to employers you are qualified and have the ability to master something new.

3. Finding Resources and Making the System Work for You

You’ve set your mind on going to college or trade school. Now it is time to figure out how you will finance it. I am not sure if many schools do this, but my high school actually provided a trade school certification if a student spent half of their school day in regular classes and spent the second half at the trade school. What was so good about this program is that they offered transportation as well! Find out if your school offers a similar program, and speak to your guidance counselor about your plans. Research the college application process online and also look into the schools you want to attend as they may require additional essays or letters of recommendation. Look into the schools that appeal to you based on location, majors/programs they offer, tuition, and network of alumni (yes, in my opinion, networking is an important aspect of the post-grad job search). A tip for low-income first-generation students: many top-rated colleges will actually cover the majority, if not all, of your tuition, including housing and food. Don’t hesitate to apply to these schools due to imposter syndrome; if your qualifications are good, go ahead and give it a go. The college application process is stressful, so make sure to know what all your deadlines are and give yourself plenty of time to write essays, get them double-checked, and ask teachers for recommendations.

4. Ask for Help and Mentorship

You’ve made it to college/trade school, yay! It’s an exciting new journey to learn and develop your skills. Be bold and take classes in which you are interested, but keep in mind that this will be a challenge. Luckily there are plenty of resources out there; there is the good old trusty internet which has all the knowledge to help you think through problem sets more clearly, but keep in mind that many professors host office hours to help you learn the material too. I recommend going to these as it is very beneficial not just to help you finish your homework but also to make a connection with the professor. Sadly this is something that I did not do in college, but I learn from my mistakes and make sure to form a friendly yet professional relationship with your prof. Who knows when you decide to go to grad school and need a letter of recommendation, or even better, establish a mentor for future guidance.

Make sure to review your college bills even if your aid covers all of them to make sure there are no questionable charges, and leverage the school’s financial aid office if something is not clear. There is no need for you to go through it alone and assume things. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn as I’ve always felt like I shouldn’t ask “dumb questions” or I was taking up people’s time for something useless, but I had to realize that I’ll never get anywhere if I keep holding back and I’d rather look dumb than get a low grade in the end.

5. Managing your Family

Lastly, we can’t leave family out of the picture. As many low-income first-generation students lack financial stability from their families, most are forced to get a second job at school and juggle their studies along with work. This is a difficult situation for anyone to be in, especially harder when family is involved. First, clearly state expectations with your family. Are they expecting you to contribute financially to the household while still in college? Are they able to help you cover any expenses if you are studying far away? Clear this up to know where you stand and remember they are a priority, but so is school. I know it sounds selfish, but you only have four years to fully enjoy and learn all you can. If you must, look into campus jobs that can help reduce the bill. For example, residence assistants or residence advisors (aka RAs) are in charge of looking out for the well-being of their residents living in on-campus buildings, but they also get free housing at the same time. There are many jobs on campus, so do your research and ask your friends. It’s also worth noting that if you are struggling to juggle both school and work, it might be good to speak to your boss about it. I was able to have an amazing set of bosses during my three years at school, where I worked for one of the offices on campus. They understood that we weren’t able to devote too many hours at work during exam season and let us do some of our school work during the job.

All in all, preparation is key in navigating this exciting journey of your life. Do your research, have clear objectives, stay focused on the end goal, and make sure to have fun. There is no better feeling than achieving what you have worked so hard for and reflecting on an experience that will lead to much growth and knowledge. Best of luck!

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