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My first day of college explains many common characteristics of a first-generation college student: I arrived on campus two hours early in case there was traffic. (There was none.) I brought all of my books for all of my classes, even though I only had two that day, as I was unsure if professors called on classes randomly. My phone died and I had no idea what time it was, and I was way too afraid to ask someone. (I thought I would look dumb if I asked.) My first class was wonderful and I sat at the very front of the classroom, staring at the professor in absolute awe. At the end of the class I came to the conclusion that “I did it!”–until I realized it was time to eat lunch. Nobody told me during orientation where commuter students could eat their bagged lunches. I knew for certain that I was unable to bring my bagged lunch into the cafe, for it was a “swipe system” and an all-you-can-eat buffet. I didn’t want to ask where I could eat my lunch, nor did I know who to ask, so I resorted to the only place I felt comfortable on the college campus.

On my first day of college, I ate my bologna and cheese sandwich in my car, and thought, “College sucks. Why does everybody rave about college?!”

Beginning to Belong

Little did I know that college can be a truly incredible place. However, for at least the first week of college I suffered from symptoms of “imposter phenomenon,” a common experience for first-generation college students; this term describes feeling like you don’t belong or aren’t meant to be on a college campus. Once I began asking those questions that I wish I had asked the first day, and once I started to exert myself by applying for an on-campus employment opportunity and joining clubs and organizations, I began to feel like I actually did belong at Merrimack.

Creating a Support Program

I would go on to co-create a nationally recognized support program for first-generation college students at Merrimack College called Generation Merr1mack. I grew close to the Director of the O’Brien Center for Student Success (where I am a student worker) and she asked me if I was a first-generation college student. After a series of conversations, I discovered the meaning of the term “first-generation student,” and learned about the research concerning these students’ experiences. I also had the amazing opportunity to be able work alongside someone who was just as passionate about first-generation college students as I was, and who would act as a mentor to me for my entire college career.

The goal of Generation Merr1mack was that nobody would experience what I did on the first day. This initiative has grown immensely and now allows first-generation students to have upperclassmen G-1 mentors, as well as provides specialized support in areas of academics, social involvement, career preparation and more. I have had the opportunity to present Generation Merr1mack at both regional and national conferences, and have discovered a love for public-speaking.

Balancing It All

I am not only a first-generation college student, but a vocational technical graduate as well, meaning that I graduated from a high school where not all students are apt to attend and succeed in college. Since I am paying for my college education all by myself, I am working three part-time jobs to have a consistent income; I commute to save money, and I do not have a meal plan. I work up to 30 hours per week (with all jobs combined), but I strive to make it an enjoyable time by consistently having a positive attitude and outlook in the workplace. My relaxation comes when I return home each evening, and spending time with my family, boyfriend and friends is what keeps me grounded.

As a commuter, I balance not only work and classes, but also home life. I consider myself a professional and take all of my obligations seriously; to-do lists and calendars are the tools that allow me to balance it all. I make myself a weekly calendar and organize all of what the coming week brings. My classes are my No. 1 priority, and I allot a great amount of time to reading, finishing assignments and studying for exams.

Advice to First-Generation Students: Ask and Never Give Up!

My advice to all first-generation college students is this: Do not be afraid to ask questions! Ask other students and members of your college community how to balance your schedule; this is a very valid question and it takes time to figure it out. In addition, have conversations outside of class with your professors, staff and faculty, and never ever give up.

I am truly motivated and inspired by all first-generation college students, and I challenge you to remember that the sky is the limit. The possibilities are endless!