Tips for First-Generation College Students from People Who Have Been There Before

Being a first-generation college student — students whose parents did not graduate from a four-year college or university— is an impressive accomplishment in and of itself.

Not only are you blazing a trail for those who follow you, but you’re also a credit to those who came before you: parents, guardians, family, friends and other supporters.

But being a first-gen college student comes with unique challenges. Your college may seem like a new, unfamiliar and even lonely place, especially considering that you may not be able to call someone at home who knows what you’re going through and can relate to the struggles.

That’s why it’s so important to remember that you’re not alone. Alma College, in Alma, Michigan, has had thousands and thousands of first-gen college students come through its halls and succeed through to graduation. More than most alums, these people are eager to pass on what they learned and the lessons they needed to succeed.

The Alma College Career and Personal Development Office recently hosted a roundtable discussion with alumni (from three different decades!) who were also first-gen students. Here are some tips they gave to future first-gen college students:

  • “Surround yourself with people who make your world bigger. Those are the mentors in your life.” — Amanda Zielinski Slenski ’07, Chief of Staff, Out for Undergrad
  • “The things I enjoy most in life, that enrich my life the most … all of those things, I learned about for the first time when I was at Alma College. There’s a very tangible value and then there’s a more intangible value that all comes from persevering through college and graduating.” — Eric Blackhurst ’83, Associate General Counsel, The Dow Chemical Company
  • “You have to be open. You have to be vulnerable. You have ask for that guidance. If you engage, the professors at a school like Alma are the difference-makers for the rest of your life.” — Joanne Finnorn ’85, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Superior Industries International, Inc.
  • “You don’t have to have it all figured out in college … it’s okay not to have it figured out. Everything that you do helps you learn things that you like and that you don’t like.” — Samantha Jackson ’13, Career Readiness Consultant, Kent ISD

Here is some additional help, from the Career and Personal Development Office:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll hear a lot from your professors about “office hours” — when they take place and that it is very important that you go. But what are office hours, anyway? It’s a time for you and professor to sit down 1-on-1 and just talk. You can ask questions about the course content or just talk about what you’re learning. Your professors might ask you some questions to get to know you better. Building a good relationship with professors is an important part of college, and it goes well beyond the grades you receive. You should take advantage of office hours. Additionally, peer tutoring is available free of charge for Alma College students. Visit the tutoring website to learn more about requesting a tutor or applying to be a tutor.
  • Get Alma Connected. One of the biggest challenges about being a new student is navigating the endless opportunities on campus. To start connecting with other students while exploring your interests and passions - join a club, team or student organization that fits with something you’re interested in. There are nearly 100 student groups and organizations on campus that meet regularly, host programs and events, and provide service to the Alma community. Alma Connect is the platform for all registered student groups at Alma College. You can find all student groups, their upcoming events, and their contact information.
  • Stay on top of your finances. Finances are an important part of every college student’s experience. Get to know the financial resources available and how they can help you. At Alma College, there is a Financial Aid Office (which can assist with the specific financial aid you were awarded, like grants, scholarships, work study, and student loans you were offered) and Financial Services Office (which is where you go to pay tuition at the beginning of every semester and find out information on payment plans). At Alma, both are in the lower level of Hamilton Commons.