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I grew up in a small town. To give you some perspective – it is unincorporated, an hour-and-a-half drive away from Walmart in any direction and does not even have a stoplight. While it was a great, safe place to grow up, I always knew I wanted to go away for college, and eventually, even farther away for a career.

I have always enjoyed traveling anywhere and everywhere, but my family much prefers to stay home in the solitude of Northern Wisconsin. Lucky for me, they are understanding and support me in all my endeavors. My mother is a bank teller, and my father is a machinist; however, they have always encouraged me to dream and reach as far as possible.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew I wanted to attend a four-year school, but I did not think I could handle the culture shock of a large metropolitan area right away.

Instead, I chose a state university in a city with a population of about 26,000 and a student body of around 9,000. This was the perfect stepping-stone for me — there was much more for me to do and see than in my hometown, but it was never overwhelming. Now that I’m in my final year, I am ready for more.

That doesn’t mean someone from a small town shouldn’t go to a larger school in a more populated city; as a matter of fact, many often do. However, others, like myself, may find the transition from a small town to a small- or medium-sized city more comfortable. In fact, I would even say that I owe much of my success in college to that decision.

Another benefit of transitioning with a smaller school is involvement. When you attend a smaller school, it is almost impossible not to get involved in the various clubs and organizations that relate directly to your major and interests.

There’s a strong body of evidence pointing to the relationships between early involvement and increased retention rates at colleges and universities, and I would definitely agree based on my personal experience. As a journalism student, I immediately got involved in student media. Not only do these experiences foster a sense of belonging, but they also provide valuable lessons not found in any textbook.

Clubs and organizations offer students opportunities to have meaningful experiences readily applicable to real life. Coming from a rural high school, I never had the opportunity to be involved in a student newspaper or television station. When I got to college, those were the opportunities that excited me most. The camaraderie helped me learn the ropes of my jobs, classes, and the university social scene. More importantly, I was able to connect with peers who shared my interests and passions.

These experiences can be especially beneficial for first-generation college students. If your parents did not attend college, then they may not completely understand or appreciate everything that you’re going through. While my parents are extremely supportive, they could not always relate to the struggles and triumphs I was experiencing, especially during my first year away at school.

It’s also important to not allow yourself to feel intimidated. You may be sheltered, naive or inexperienced in the ways of life, but that does not make you any less deserving of a quality education than your fellow students. It takes a great deal of courage to move away from home and try something new, so remember that the next time you start to feel discouraged.

If being a first-generation student has taught me anything, it is to never give up and never, ever doubt yourself. Where you come from does not define you, and just because you are the first does not mean you cannot reach for the stars and achieve whatever you put your mind to. Go get it!