When college classes begin this summer and fall, thousands of students stepping onto college campuses will be the first person in their family to ever do so as a student.
Former first lady Michelle Obama said that, for her, attending college as a first-generation college student was like learning “a whole new language.”
“It was an out-of-body kind of experience,” Obama said Thursday of being a freshman at Princeton University. “I went to public schools. I grew up on [Chicago’s] South Side. [I had] working-class parents who didn’t go to college.”
Obama went on to graduate from Princeton and Harvard Law School, had a successful career in law and hospital administration, and made her mark as first lady of the United States.
She spoke to incoming first-generation college students Thursday at the #BeatingTheOdds summit, organized by Better Make Room, the organization that supports the Reach Higher initiative Obama started as first lady.
1. Don’t be isolated
Don’t do this in isolation. Find your community. Find a community for yourself. Whether that’s through sports or it’s a cultural organization or a minority student group. Finding a cohort for your place and starting to build your community is going to be important.
College wasn’t meant to be alone.
2. Engage in campus life
If you find yourself with too much idle time sitting alone, ask yourself, “How can I break out of my comfort zone and get out of my dorm room and start living in the campus community and start taking advantage of that?”
3. Ask for help
Ask for help, and early and often. Ask for help. If you’re sitting in a lecture or a class and you feel like you’re lost, don’t wait until the middle of the semester. Go right away.
There are support systems on all these college campuses but, again, nobody is going to find you. You’re going to have to go and seek them out. When you do, people will be there for you.
4. Find your passions
I was a master box-checker. Get these grades, okay, check. Got the grades. Do the test. Take the test. Apply to school. Get in. Get good grades. Go to law school. Check. Check. Check.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I looked up and realized that I was so busy checking the boxes that I didn’t check with what and who I wanted to be. By then I was a lawyer and with a lot of debt.
You should be using this time to explore yourself and your passions, too.
That’s easier said than done when you’re accumulating debt and you feel like, “Oh, I don’t have time to waste.” And, of course, you don’t want to waste time, but there is something to be said for not just trying to get through stuff and experiencing it.
5. Enjoy it
College is the experience. Work is work. Even if you love it, it’s a job. Take this time and appreciate this because when you’re young you don’t. You’re always thinking that there’s another thing.
College is really — if you let go of the fear and the worry — it is really a great opportunity just to grow up in a safe-ish environment where you get to try out some things and your mistakes won’t crush you.