What I Learned as a First-Generation College Student

T-minus 150 days to graduation, give or take.

In four short years, I’ve tried to take advantage of every opportunity I was given. I’ve joined and quit many clubs and organizations, had countless internships, attended every football game (in all kinds of weather) and taken on both a double major and dual degree.

While everyone else is planning post-grad life, I find myself trying to live in the moment now, more than ever. Am I scared for what’s to come? Absolutely. But I’m trying to make the most of right now. I’ve really taken the motto “fourth year freshman” to heart.

Why? 

Because I’m a first-generation college student.

Before coming to college, I had no idea what “first gen” meant, even though one in every three entering freshman is considered a first-generation student. Not to mention that I had no idea scholarships even existed for being classified as first-generation. I was extremely fortunate to be a recipient of the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship (MFOS), a fully-funded scholarship program specifically designed for low-income students who are first in their family to complete a college degree.

Trials and Tribulations

I clearly remember stepping onto campus four years ago, feeling completely lost and totally overwhelmed. I called my parents about five times a day (including the day they dropped me off). In all honesty, I still call them twice a day. I had many questions about so many different things – but unlike most college students, my parents had never been to college, and had no way of helping me. Instead, I called home for reassurance, to feel like I was making my parents proud, even when I had no idea what my next step was.

Support

Luckily, I had an amazing support system that helped me figure out those next steps. Not only did the MFOS Program bring me to UF, it kept me here.

In my first few weeks as a Freshman I was assigned a peer mentor. As a naive and stubborn freshman, I was unwilling to admit how overwhelmed I really felt. Although you’d never know it now, just a few short weeks after arriving on campus I was ready to leave. Although UF was my dream school, I really missed home.

My struggles aren’t unique, as more than a quarter of low-income first generation college students leave after their first year. I honestly cannot thank my mentor enough for helping me see the opportunities I had in front of me, when I couldn’t see them myself. This experience made me excited to become a peer mentor and guide future freshmen. Since then, I’ve had a total of 16 mentees, and I now oversee the peer mentor program as a whole, hoping to make the same difference my mentor made for me three years ago.

Lessons Learned

I’ve learned it’s okay to ask for help. Everyone gets stuck at some point, and no one has all the answers. Ask for help, and be willing to accept it when someone offers. There are so many experiences and opportunities that will open for you when you are willing to let others help you.

It’s okay to say no. You can’t do it all, know when to say yes, and when to respectfully decline. Remember school comes first, it’s the main reason you’re here. Try and maintain balance in all aspects of your life.

Be passionate. You should always be open to new experiences, but don’t forget to make time for things you love. Take dance classes, paint in your spare time or learn to play an instrument. Find something that makes you incredibly happy and do it.

It’s okay to miss home. Make time to call home every once in a while. Your family loves and misses you, and they want to know about your accomplishments. Nothing feels better on a tough day than hearing your parents say “we’re proud of you.”

I’m extremely proud to call myself a first-generation student. We are trailblazers who are ready to take on the world. Being the first to complete a college degree means so much more than being the first in my family to earn a piece of paper.

It makes me appreciate how hard my parents worked to help me get to this point. It makes me appreciate all of the opportunities I’ve been afforded and the experiences I’ve been grateful to have had. It makes me appreciate how lucky I am to attend one of the best schools in the nation, and most of all, it makes me damn proud to be a Florida Gator.

Originally published at GainesvilleScene on December 9th.

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