10 Secrets to College Success from a First-Generation Student

Stephanie Doan, Student Resources Coordinator, Division of Student Affairs, Diversity & Inclusion, is here to help you make the most of your college experience.

College can be a difficult transition for anyone, but for first-generation college students, the change can feel a little more daunting. I understand. As the oldest in my family, I was the first to attend a postsecondary institution, since neither of my parents attended college. It is a lot of responsibility, and sometimes, you don’t know what to do. That’s OK.

I’m here to help you out—first-gen student to first-gen student. I know it can be scary to be the first in your family to go to college, but it is equally as exciting. Let me share some of my secrets with you to help make the best of your college experience. And what better way to do so than with two of my favorite feel-good things: GIFs and relatable moments from the movie Legally Blonde.

Secret #1: Everyone is looking to make friends, so don’t be scared about not making any.

I remember talking to my best friend before I left for college and thinking, “Do I even know how to make new friends?” Thankfully, I started making friends at the beginning of First-Year Orientation. I met other students living in the same residence hall as me, as well as other upper-year students on campus. Just be yourself and make sure to introduce yourself to new people, even if you already know people in the room.

Secret #2: Whoever said the first year is easy is a liar.

I remember my uncle telling me that my first year would be easy because it is typically when you take general education courses. However, at Champlain, your first year focuses on learning the ropes and adjusting to college life, as well as—thanks to the Upside-Down Curriculum—taking classes in the subjects that matter the most to you. It can be overwhelming. Don’t worry though. We have plenty of resources like our Counseling Center and SMART Space to help you.

Secret #3: Remember, just because your friends or family back home might not understand what you’re going through at college, it doesn’t mean they can’t support you.

Not every student’s family or friends are supportive of their choice to go to college, but some are. They might not always get what you’re going through, but it still helps to have a little cheering section to boost your confidence.

Secret #4: Walk into class with a positive attitude, and it will do you wonders.

No matter how hard or scary it may seem, it’s important to remember to keep your thoughts positive. Studies show that those with a positive outlook are more likely to find success in their goals. So, my friend, hold your head up high because you’re going to be great.

Secret #5: Find a way to make yourself stand out.

Make sure it’s in a way that you want to stand out. Become a student leader. Get involved in clubs. Raise your hand in the classroom. Studies show that students who are engaged and involved are more likely to find success and satisfaction with their college experience. You’ll make a lot of connections with others, which could lead to cool opportunities for you in the future.

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Secret #6: Be prepared for a culture shock.

Regardless of where you come from or where you grew up, college life is going to be different, and the people you meet will be coming from all walks of life. Even if you grew up in the same area, the people you meet on campus will make it seem like a whole other planet. College is all about challenging yourself, pushing your boundaries, and learning something new every day.

Secret #7: Don’t forget to take care of yourself.

With college comes a lot of freedom. You have more free time and space to make your own decisions. Just make sure that at least some of those decisions are about being safe, well, and healthy. Trust me, you’ll feel better for it.

Secret #8: It’s okay to treat yourself, too.

A little splurging once in a while on something not related to physical health or academics is a good idea, too. Spa night, anyone?

Secret #9: I won’t lie, there were times when I wondered how I got this far.

As a first-gen student, it can be hard to navigate your way through college. I’ve often wondered, “How do I keep up my grades? Can I afford to keep attending? What if I don’t find a job after graduation? How does anyone find internships? I don’t know what I’m doing!?”

You may not know what to expect and sometimes you question why you’re even at college. But, again, it’s OK. Even though there are many new things you’ll have to learn to balance all at once, you will find your way.

Secret #10: You’re going to get good at this whole college thing and wonder why you ever doubted yourself.

Just like learning anything new, you’ll start picking up tricks along the way, and things will start to feel easier. You’ll be a pro in no time. Sure, every year of college comes with its own challenges and difficulties, but that’s part of the learning process. By the time you’re a senior, you’ll know about the networking and experiential opportunities that Career Collaborative offers, how to talk to your professors about questions you have, and the different kinds of financial support the Office of Financial Aid provides.

Final Thoughts: Believe in yourself.

There are plenty of people to support you during your time at college, but it’s really up to you to keep yourself moving forward throughout the process. A good first step is just knowing that you will get through. College is a whirlwind of different experiences and emotions, but as long as you believe you can do it and work hard, there is no telling what you can accomplish.

Still feel a little lost? No worries. Feel free to contact our admissions counselors, who are all here to support you from the start to the end of your college selection process.

Stephanie Doan also coordinates the AHEAD Pre-Orientation Program. This event focuses on college readiness and academic preparation for students who are the first in their family to go to college, students from our partnership high schools, students with high financial need, students of color, and/or New Americans/Refugees.

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