This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
I watched my father graduate with his bachelor’s degree, the first in his family or my mother’s family to do so, when I was in fourth grade. The ceremony and the majesty of it are etched in my mind. Being part of the journey, watching my father study at the kitchen table as he worked through eight years of night school, left a deep mark on me. As I think back on my career in community colleges, I realize that my passion for supporting students, especially first-generation college students, comes from my father’s travels into college and out of college. I benefited from his experience. He blazed an educational trail for his three children, and now six grandchildren, to follow.
While his journey took place nearly 45 years ago, the principles that anchored my father’s success hold true for first-generation college students of today, especially those at our nation’s 1,150 community colleges.
Commit to complete.
This seems like obvious advice, but many students enter college without making a full and long-term commitment to completing a degree or a credential that has future career and life value. Completion is a first step toward future success. Community college students who earn an associate degree before transferring to a baccalaureate program are more likely to complete their bachelor’s degree than those who transfer without an associate degree. Completion is contagious. It is esteem building. A terrific resource for completion can be found by visiting Phi Theta Kappa’s Commit to Complete tool kit at www.cccompletioncorps.org. At Montgomery County Community College, our students, faculty and Board of Trustees have signed a commitment pledge. We ask new students, when they arrive for orientation, to sign the pledge and “commit to complete.”
Ask questions: Seek assistance early and often.
A recent New York Times article spoke to the need for colleges to give students, especially first-generation college students, more basic information about the entire college experience. Sometimes, colleges assume that students understand our college jargon. Most don’t. So be proactive in asking questions, and asking them early and often.
Develop a short and long term financial plan.
Understanding the costs of attending college is important, and resources abound to help students and families develop short- and long-term financial plans; however, these resources are often disconnected and hard to understand. It’s never too early to stop in at your local community college’s student success center or financial aid office to get firsthand, comprehensive advice on how to access federal financial aid, state grant programs and college-based aid programs, as well as federal and college work-study programs. Many community colleges hold free financial aid workshops at community-based organizations and the high schools in their service areas. Web resources include http://studentaid.ed.gov/, www.nasfaa.org/students/About_Financial_Aid.aspx, http://www.actstudent.org/finaid/resources.html.
Resist the urge to plan for only your first semester of college. Take a short- and long-term view and develop a financial plan for your entire pathway to completion.
Attend to the “brown M&Ms.”
Carefully attending to small details is important to success of any type, especially success in college. Rock ‘n’ roll legend Van Halen demanded in his contract that he have M&Ms backstage but that no brown M&M’s were allowed. This was a safety precaution. He could quickly assess the quality of the performance venue by whether the fine details of the contract had been read and implemented by the presence or absence of the brown M&Ms. This story of the importance of small details reminds me of a conversation I had recently with one of my students who was describing the importance of planning, day to day, for her success at college. She said: “The college looks at retention of students from semester to semester. For me, though, retention means being here today and tomorrow.” Small things like arriving early to park, not skipping classes, pursuing tutorial assistance, securing child care, being aware of mass transportation options and building a week-to-week schedule of class requirements with time set aside to complete tasks are essential to success.
Seek and find balance and build a team for support.
This is the most important lesson I learned from my father. Many students have jobs; in fact, nearly 90 percent of Montgomery County Community College students work and attend college. Many are also parents. Finding balance in meeting the requirements of all of these obligations is challenging but possible with advance planning, and by building a strong team of vision supporters including children, spouses, partners, friends, parents and members of the college community, including faculty and academic advisors. As a child, I was a member of my father’s vision support team. There were many nights that I sat side by side with my father, doing my homework while he did his. I realize now how important my presence was to his success. Identify and enroll your vision supporters.
These five lessons for success are vital for first-generation college students, yet they are also important lessons for all of us as we move through careers and life. There is one last lesson I learned from my father, who coached me in youth softball while he was also balancing school, work and parenting. Once, as I walked off the field after making an error on a routine ground ball while playing shortstop, he reminded me that there is no excuse for being nonchalant. That advice holds true for first-generation college students. A strong, focused and mindful approach to college will lead to success. Don’t be nonchalant.