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I have been reflecting lately on what it means to be a college student in American higher education today. As I have pondered this, I have realized the similarities and differences among first-generation college students and their non-first-generation peers.

A Feeling of Disconnect

I was not a first-generation college student, but my college experience was not as traditional as that of many of my peers. At times, during my undergraduate and even graduate semesters, I felt have unable to truly connect with many of my classmates. That’s something I believe to be a major issue for first-generation students within college communities today. Feeling distant or disconnected is a common feeling when in unfamiliar surroundings, but also when surrounded with different groups or communities than a person is accustomed to.

I have also found this sense of disconnect to be the area in which I support first-generation college students the most, and I became motivated to become a peer mentor for first-generation college students because of my own college experience. I should have had the “normal” college experience as many of my classmates did, enjoying the freedom of living on campus and the social life. I wanted to make a difference in other student’s lives by using my experience and support to make their time in college not only a success, but meaningful as well.

It’s What You Make It

In hindsight, I realized that part of my struggle to connect was my fault: I did not embrace college as I should have and did not listen when people told me,”It’s what you make it.” I rolled my eyes every time I heard this, and it was not until two years later I truly understood and appreciated it. It is something I cannot stress enough in today’s higher education system.

Higher education in America today is changing rapidly and this affects first-generation college students dramatically. College is still the main gateway to the American Dream; however, the cost and requirements necessary to access this dream are ever-increasing. That’s why it’s so very important to get whatever you possibly can out of your college experience. If you don’t live on campus, try to find ways to be there as much as you can. If you need to work while going to school, try to get a job on campus, not only so that you are there more often, but so that you can create more relationships and connections on campus as well.

Become Engaged

During my undergraduate years I said, “Why get engaged? I’m only here for four years then I’m gone.” Little did I know that I would be back at my alma mater less than a year later—not only back, but enrolled in a master’s degree program.

Getting as much as you can out of your education involves all aspects of college life; academic, social and transformational. I say transformational because college has the potential to be a very transformative period in one’s life. Getting a firm hold on this concept is important, but incorporating it into your life is important as well: get as much as you can, as often as you can.

You never know what life has in store for you. But, becoming engaged on campus is not only good if you want to stay within your college environment, it is important because it helps to enrich your experience. Many first-generation college students have trouble engaging in their college community for various reasons, but becoming engaged can lead to be the most pivotal part of a college career. Getting involved is important to challenging yourself and getting all that you can out of your education. Go to events and get involved with clubs or organizations on campus; if there isn’t a group that interests you at your school, start one! This may sound repetitive, but engagement is truly the best aspect of college.