This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
As the first person in my family to attend college, I was fully aware that I was blazing a new trail. My mom was a constant source of support through my time in college, but she was also figuring out how the whole college thing worked at the same time I was. What helped to make my transition successful was getting involved in activities and organizations on campus and creating my own community, a home away from home, with fellow students who offered additional support and fellowship.
Studies suggest that first-generation college students are less likely to get involved on campus. However, studies also show that students who are more engaged in the campus community outside of the classroom gain valuable experiences that create opportunities for growth and develop valuable skills. I am an extreme example of getting involved on campus, having served as an orientation leader, student government officer, resident assistant and summer conference assistant, among other extracurricular opportunities. However, if you’re able to commit to even one or two hours per week, you have the ability to create a meaningful, well-rounded college experience.
Start with Orientation
Even if orientation is optional, make it mandatory. Orientation provides a first glimpse at what your campus has to offer outside of your classroom experience. You will have the opportunity to meet fellow students, both new students and returning student leaders. Also, you’ll likely receive folders full of valuable information; don’t just leave them in your drawstring backpack or toss them on your desk only to cover them all of the other papers that will accumulate during your college career. Take some time to read everything you’ve received, and start to highlight items that sound interesting on a calendar of events or a listing of clubs.
Head to the Web
Your college definitely has a website. Get to know it well as it will be your most up-to-date source of information as to what’s happening on campus. Find the calendar of events. Locate and bookmark the page for your office of campus or student activities. Have a specific interest? Enter that interest into the college’s internal search engine and see what comes up. Interested in sports? You don’t need to play on an intercollegiate team in order to be active. Many campuses have intramural sports, allowing students to join or form teams and compete against fellow students in everything from Ultimate Frisbee to Quidditch. (Yes, some colleges even have Quidditch teams.)
Connect to your Major
If your time truly is limited and you can only be involved in one organization, look for a club that is connected to your major or your career interest. Many academic organizations exist on campus that provide students with opportunities to engage in activities that provide experiences outside of the classroom that enhance what they’re learning in their classes. These clubs also allow you to connect with other students who share your career interests. Additionally, most of these organizations are advised by a faculty member from a relevant academic discipline, giving you a chance to create a deeper connection with a faculty member who can provide advice … and possibly even a letter of recommendation someday!
Make it Your Home Away From Home
Chances are, many of you will either commute to campus or live within a comfortable driving distance from campus. It will be tempting to go home on weekends or during breaks in your schedule. Fight that temptation! Many campus events are planned during natural breaks in the daily class schedule or, at residential institutions, during the weekends. If your campus has a common or activities hour, or some other time when classes generally aren’t scheduled, it’s very likely that SOMETHING will be going on. Even if you don’t know what’s on the day’s schedule of events, walk around campus or head to your student center. If clubs are meeting during that time, find one that interests you and just pop on in. Generally, you don’t need to be a member of a club in order to attend that club’s meetings. Many will be excited to have a potential new member come to visit.
When All Else Fails, Blaze a New Trail
Most colleges will allow you to form a new club or organization if something similar doesn’t already exist. This past year, I had students form a “Nerd Appreciation Club” on my campus to cover areas such as video gaming, role playing games and comic book discussions. Chances are, if it’s an interest of yours, then there are probably other students who share the same interest. Forming a new organization is also a great way to stretch outside your comfort zone and test your leadership skills.
A college degree is a significant investment, not only of money but also of time. As with any investment, you’ll want to get the biggest return possible. Whether your goal is to find employment after college, go on to graduate school or transfer to another institution, future employers and admissions officers will want to see evidence of experiences that provided leadership skills and resulted in you being more well-rounded. Your campus is full of those kinds of opportunities, but just like in the classroom, you will have to do some work on your own to make the most of them.