College is a major change for everyone, but especially for first-generation college students. Between checking lists, bingeing YouTube videos, and seeking advice from social media and mentors, first-generation students strive to surround themselves in advice to ensure that they learn from the mistakes of others. I would know since I lived this first-generation experience. I’m a college junior and over the past 3 years I have read more lists than I can count and made more mistakes than I would like to admit. But among these experiences I’ve learned a few things that I did not see on any YouTube video or tip list and wished someone had told me in my freshman year as first-generation student.
Tip #1: Distinguish the direction to debt
Learn how you can fall into debt. It was not until I was in my second year in college that I realized how college debt accumulated. Debt begins to build up when your college/university charges for a semester and you are unable to pay off the total balance charged. This is the point at which students may decide to take out a loan to cover the charge, otherwise your school begins to enforce restrictions such as such as blocking registration, viewing schedules, viewing degree audits, access to campus resources, etc. This may be intuitive to some but for those students and parents who are new to the college experience, this may unfortunately become their first encounter with this process. The earlier you understand this path to debt, the more motivation you may garner to apply to more scholarships, grants, and internships in high school and/or college.
Tip #2: Discover your department
Students who enter college already knowing their major or feeling pressured by social or time constraints to stick to a specific major may have tunnel vision and avoid exploring other possibilities. Take time to consider the different courses at least within your current department. You may find another major that is similar to yours but focuses more on a career direction you are more interested in going in. I experienced this shift when I stepped out of my tunnel vision of my nutritional sciences major to see that my career goals better aligned with the Dietetics major, which was in my same department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Following this advice ensures that your major is the best fit for you and what you really want!
Tip #3: Study your degree audit
Check, study and get to know your degree audit! A degree audit is a progress checker of how close you are to finishing your degree. It lists all the required courses and types of credits you need for your degree along with the classes you have completed and which requirements they satisfy. Some schools allow students to access it on their own through a student portal, but even if your school does not, I suggest asking your adviser for a copy because becoming literate in your degree audit’s language can be critical to saving time and money in the future. As a freshman, I took extra classes that satisfied certain requirements because I didn’t realize that my degree plan already included classes that would have satisfied those requirements, thus wasting my credits. Taking a certain number of extra credits past your required degree credit count can result in your school charging you for what is called excess hours. In some schools, you are charged double the tuition rate for every excess hour you take! Check your school’s excess hour policy and make sure you are intentional about the classes that you take and do not take, based on your degree audit!
Tip #4: Remember your reason
Finally, remember how you got to where you are now! You may encounter trials in your college experience but as a first-generation college student, do not forget the trail you are blazing a trail for your family and yourself. You are entering territory where others near you may have never been before. I and so many others are prouder of you than you can ever imagine. Remember why you are in college and that you never walk alone in this journey!
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