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What I Wish I'd Known as a First-Gen College Student

by Rachel Hicks | October 15, 2019
What I Wish I'd Known as a First-Gen College Student

Signal Vine employee and first-generation college student Rachel Hicks reflects on her experiences and how institutions can help first-generation college students.

Hi, I'm Rachel, and I'm a first-generation college student.

I began my college journey in 2011. I don’t remember having a conversation with my mother about if I would go to college. It was expected of me. My mother, who raised me by herself, insisted that college was my “way out.” It was my key to a bright future, a future in which I wouldn’t ever have to depend on anyone but me for financial security.

As it turns out, she was right (but don’t tell her that). If I had to choose one milestone moment that changed my life, I would say, without hesitation, college. Growing up in a small, rural town in West Virginia, I don’t think I ever grasped what was “out there” until college. That was when I got to explore and, in many ways, become my own person. Now that I’m months away from a master’s degree, I can see just how much exploring I’ve done since I was that shy, timid girl walking onto a college campus for the first time.

I’ve never regretted my decision to reach higher. But in hindsight, I realize that shy, timid girl who was terrified of the future didn’t go into college knowing key information that would have enhanced her experience. Since I’m five months (and 13 days) away from completing my education, now seems like a good time to reflect on things I wish I’d known as a first-generation college student.

I’m not the only first-generation college student.

When I first began college, I can remember feeling quite isolated and alone as many first-gen students do. I wish I’d realized just how many of my fellow classmates were exactly like me. In fact, a third of today’s college students are first-gen. Half of those students begin their college journeys at community college, just like I did. I was far from alone, yet I felt like I was by myself on the journey, at least at first.

how to help first-generation college studentsTake the University of Texas at Austin, for example. They have staff members dedicated to making sure that first-gen students feel like they are a part of campus. They even have an annual First-Generation College Day to celebrate these students, showing the value they add to campus. As a result, they have increased their first-gen graduation rate by 21% over six years. Had I had this type of interaction with fellow first-gen students, I would have felt far more involved as a student. I wouldn’t have felt so alone when I began my college journey.

Going to college is a wise investment – and here’s why.

Truthfully, the main reason why I went to college is because my mother expected me to. I knew facts here and there that made me believe college would help me land a well-paying job. However, I didn’t know the numbers. I didn’t know that college grads earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school grads. I didn’t realize that simply earning a bachelor’s degree would help me earn double what a high school grad earns yearly. Beyond the money, I now know from having worked in college access that college grads are healthier, happier, and more secure, even during economic downturns. Seeing for myself why college is so important would have been a strong motivator for me as a first-generation college student.

Notably, this type of information is required by Gen Z. By and large, millennials went to college because of that expectation placed on us that it was the logical step after high school. But Gen Z has learned from our mistakes. They question more than we millennials did. They’re far more pragmatic. They research, evaluate their options (usually from their smartphones), and then weigh their choices and consider the potential return on investment. As a result, it’s crucial to arm this generation with information that will help them make a decision about college.

There are resources on campus.

Just before I graduated with my associate degree, I realized we had clubs on campus. It was around that time that I’d also realized we had free tutoring services. I wish I’d known about these groups long before then so I could have participated.

Had my institution told me in my first semester about clubs I could join, I feel like I would have had a much more fulfilling experience. This would have meant even more to me as a first-gen community college student. In the beginning, I only had evening classes, and my time spent on campus was limited. Therefore, I had limited exposure to on-campus announcements of clubs and events. Had I received communication from my college, preferably via text message, about these clubs, I would have known about them – and definitely participated in them. This would have given me a stronger sense of belonging on campus.

As it turns out, I'm not alone. Many first-generation college students report not knowing what resources are available to them on campus. As a result, they face additional — and unnecessary — barriers to completion.

Luckily, many institutions are helping first-generation students know exactly where to go for these resources. In many cases, these directions reach students before classes begin. For example, Utah Valley University uses Signal Vine to text first-generation students to remind them about orientation, registration, and a Fall Welcome Night Event. Also, staff remind students to reach out for help when needed. Had I received this type of communication from my college, I would have felt much more confident in my first semester.

Take a minimum of 15 credit hours.

It took me three years to earn an associate degree. Part of this is my fault. I couldn’t make up my mind on which field to pursue at a university after I graduated from community college. On-campus, I was told that 12 hours meant full-time. In my first-gen mindset, I thought, Oh, 12 hours is what I should take, then! Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I needed to do some math. To earn the required 60 credit hours for an associate degree, I needed to take at least 15 credit hours each semester. This put me a semester behind where I should have been.

When I worked at a college access organization in West Virginia, we used Signal Vine to text incoming college freshmen a reminder to take a minimum of 15 credit hours. Also, we showed them the math behind it so they could see for themselves. Not to my surprise, many students texted back with questions about "full-time" versus our suggestion for 15 credit hours per semester. It gave us the opportunity to explain why we recommended 15 credit hours. I wish I'd had this nudge as a college freshman.

This is what your award letter and bill mean.

I experienced severe anxiety when I received my first award letter and bill. My award letter looked great, but my bill did not. A fit of panic later and someone on campus explained to me that the cost listed on my bill included life expenses, such as transportation to get to and from school and even room and board. The expenses I owed for my actual schooling were paid in full through grants and scholarships. But in that moment of panic, I questioned my entire academic future.

Students are already scared when it comes to thinking about how to pay for college. It doesn’t make sense for institutions not to address these fears early on. Some institutions now use texting to help students understand their award letters. This would have been incredible for me. Having a written note on my phone not to panic when I received my award letter and bill would have saved me a lot of stress. Even better, I would have loved to receive texts with scholarship and grant information.

What I now know as a first-generation college graduate.

My learning as a first-generation college student goes far beyond my education. Having worked for a college and a college access organization, I realize a lot of other first-gen students have the same concerns I did. That is what makes working in higher ed and college access organizations so rewarding. We can see a lot of ourselves in the students we serve. As for us first-gen students who now work in or alongside higher ed, our collective mission is learning how to help first-generation college students like ourselves. As a result, we can help them enter the experience being far more prepared than we were as first-gen students.

We can all reflect on our time as being a student setting his or her first footsteps on campus. The experience was overwhelming, incredible, and – at least for this first-gen student – magical. It’s up to all of us who work at or support the efforts of higher ed institutions to learn how to help first-generation college students so their time in college is meaningful. After all, they’re our future.

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