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From a small city in a big country to a big city in a small country, my journey from Wisconsin to England was a dream come true. In 2011 I graduated from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wis, and that same year I received the prestigious Davies-Jackson Scholarship, a privately-funded scholarship administered by the Council of Independent Colleges given specifically to first-generation students. This scholarship allowed me to study English literature at St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge. I graduated this summer from Cambridge, and my mind is still reeling from the extraordinary experience. As a first-generation student, this is more than I imagined myself achieving; but, as I reflect on these past six years of higher education, I see a few key factors that allowed me to succeed.

The Formative Years

Despite being a first-generation student, I never considered not going to college. My single mother never went to college, but it was always expected of me, and she worked hard throughout her life to make sure that I would not have to face any serious economic hardships during my pursuit of higher education. This mindset, even as a freshman in high school, encouraged me to perform at the highest level I could reach. High school is no time to slack off: High ACT/SAT scores and making the Dean’s List help students secure scholarships and grants from universities.

Many universities are happy to help students with any financial difficulties, but students have to put in effort as well. This mentality got me into my undergraduate program, and it was essential in securing my full scholarship to the University of Cambridge. I didn’t know until a few months into my senior year of undergraduate studies that I would be applying for this scholarship, but that didn’t keep me from putting 150 percent into my academic work in college. Oxford and Cambridge are especially looking for students who demonstrate consistent, high-quality work, and who take the initiative on their own projects. This meant that I had to go above and beyond the work set before me. But, as the past few years of my life have shown, hard work—especially from an early agebuilds essential life skills that can significantly benefit you academically.

An Education Outside of the Classroom

I’ve always been a firm believer that a lot of education happens outside of the classroom. It shows a lot about the character of person when their resume includes more than just academic accolades. I worked for six years with a local humane society and for three years with a nature center, and I believe that this volunteering not only showed dedication and passion, but gave me experience in working in fast-paced environments, as well as team-building skills and the chance to learn to both follow detailed rules and plan my own projects.

Also, since I knew which subject I wanted to pursue in higher educationEnglish and writingI took part in extracurricular activities that complimented my degree, such as theater, writing clubs, tutoring and English honor societies. These organizations boosted both my creative and leadership potential, while giving my resume a nice cushion! Not everyone has the time or energy to take part in so many different activities, especially with tuition to pay or young siblings to care for. But, I believe every experience is a lesson, and these lessons mean a lot to those reading your college applications. So, you weren’t president of a society, but you were manager of your local coffee shop, and you have been babysitting for years. Make the most of the skills you’ve gained outside of the classroom; they’re a nice compliment to your academic achievements.

The Power of Support

It’s hard to do anything difficult alone. I’d be lying if I said I achieved all that I did just on my own strength and intellectual prowess. I have many people to thank for helping me out over the years.

Sometimes it’s easy to get in the mindset that we’re alone, without a support system, or that we’re capable of accomplishing difficult tasks on our own. That’s not true. There is always someone out there willing to lend a hand or a piece of advice. Most importantly: there is always someone who wants to see you succeed.

It may be cliché, but your biggest support system is yourself. It’s so easy for us to think that we’re not good enough, not smart enough and don’t have enough money or resources or time to achieve what we want. In the end, it’s just an excuse. The day my application for the Davies-Jackson scholarship was due, my huge senior thesis was also due, as was an application for a national writing contest. I was still volunteering and running two school organizations. I had only a few weeks to write three essays for this scholarship application, not to mention getting letters of recommendation and filling out a bunch of forms. I told myself I was too busy; I’d never get the scholarship; there was too much competition. Why would a girl like me get such an amazing opportunity? But in the end, I applied. I worked overtime, balanced my schedule, asked a few professors and friends for help and got it done. Why? Because I knew I was capable of it, and I knew that I’d be kicking myself if I passed up this opportunity. I knew that I could.

The “I can” mentality doesn’t mean you’ll always succeed at everything you do, but there’s nothing harder to overcome than the obstacles you put in front of yourself. And, two years later, I am endlessly thankful that I believed in myself (and others believed in me) enough to apply for that scholarship.