This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
I had no idea where to apply to college. Where the heck would I even start? I had always had big ambitions, but now the time had come to act on them and I was a little lost. Private college tuition was off-putting, but I was lucky enough to have a teacher who explained to me that “sticker price” wasn’t everything. The elite (and expensive!) schools often have the biggest benefactors, but still, when I mentioned to my dad that I was applying to Colby College, his only remark was, “Isn’t that place expensive?” After all, $55,000 was more than most people I knew made in a year.
In all honesty, I didn’t have a great method for picking schools to apply to and because I had done well in high school, my family seemed to think that I had the process under control. I did my best to search online and read pamphlets from the college fair. With some help from my favorite teachers I chose a fallback school (The University of Maine at Orono), three schools I felt I could get into (Clark University, Stonehill College and American University) and two reach schools (Northeastern University and Colby). I felt that Colby was way out of my league and had even been told by a teacher that I wouldn’t get in. But, lo and behold, I ended up attending Colby College for less than $10,000 a year.
Struggling First Semester
Being a first-generation student at Colby meant a lot of things for me. It meant I felt extremely privileged to be here. It meant I felt I had a lot to prove. But, most of all, it meant I had no clue what I was doing. I couldn’t figure out how to print in the library, and was too intimidated to visit my professors during their office hours. And, I thought that The North Face was the jacket you had to have, but it turned out that Patagonia was now the must-have apparel. I felt like everything I did was wrong.
In My Comfort Zone
After completing my freshman fall semester, I took a leave of absence from Colby as I had been unable to assimilate socially and academically. I felt like I had failed my family who was so proud that I had made it into such an elite school. I began taking classes at the University of Southern Maine and working nearly full time. I was back in my comfort zone, around people I felt I could relate to. But I knew that I had to return to Colby. Colby had been my victory. It was an open door to a much more diverse world than Oxford Hills, Maine could give me. I love my town, my people and my family, and I would not be who I am without them; but, my hometown is also a place that is plagued with poverty and drugs. I hope to be able to return to my community with the knowledge to address these issues.
Back Where I Belong
After one semester off, I returned to Colby in the fall of 2012, and I committed myself to getting out of my comfort zone. I had to study hard and go out and meet new people. Despite the hard transition, I knew I belonged at Colby. I have always belonged at Colby; I just didn’t always know it and have the confidence to believe it. It took me some time to realize that I deserve an amazing education and that I want this amazing education more than anything else. I have seen so many doors close for many of my peers from high school. I consider myself extremely lucky to at least have had advocates in my corner who pushed me to be uncomfortable in the name of bettering myself.
Support From Others: Better Than Bootstraps
I am sure you have heard time and time again that with mere hard work you can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but don’t be fooled. I believe in hard work, but I also believe that there are many other factors in succeeding. I never could have returned to Colby if my mom hadn’t pressed me about it every day or people in my community didn’t come up to me and ask why I had left. I am lucky to have had a teacher who was so devoted to my education that when I was deferred after applying for early admission to Colby, she wrote a letter to their admissions department telling them that it would be a mistake not to admit me. Everyone around me wanted me at Colby; they had that faith in me. Many of my peers did not have this support, so I must be eternally grateful for what I received.
My return to Colby was not easy, and your journey to higher education will not be easy either—I can tell you that for sure. But, because I became committed to reaching out for help when I needed it, I made the Dean’s List last year. This fall I was lucky enough to obtain the school’s first “First Generation to College Fellowship” through which I coordinate events for first-gen students to come together and share their experiences. The program was instrumental in my successful return to Colby, and my hope is that it will show others that they are not alone and that we can support one another.
Research Resources for FGS & Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions!
When considering colleges, it may be helpful to know what resources may be available to you. Some schools offer programs like ours, while others offer special scholarships or grants. The best advice I can give is to not be afraid to ask. My pride often stopped me from asking even simple questions; I often had the mindset, “I did it in high school, so I can do it now”. But college is different and I came from a public school that did not prepare me for this vigorous education. Once I began asking questions, asking where I can find a tutor, asking how to use the printers or the resource labs, I realized I wasn’t alone at all. Many people were in the same boat I was, first-gen or not. But by simply asking, my experience has become much more positive. Asking has even gotten me financial help so that I can spend this January in Paris studying French! You just have to stick your neck out there and not be afraid. It sure won’t be easy, but I promise you: it will be worth it!