What I Wish I’d Known as a First Generation Student

I was the first person in my family to go to college.  I was excited to get started and my family was proud of me.  At the time, I didn’t even realize that being a “first generation student” was somehow different from other students on campus who had parents, brothers or sisters, or other family members who were familiar with the world of academia.  But it was – it meant that they knew some things when they got to campus that I had no idea about.  And I didn’t even know I was missing that information.  Here are some of those things I wish I’d known then:


  1. College is a fresh start. You will no longer be stuck in the same clique or assumed to have the same label you carried in high school simply because of your last name, where you grew up, or the way you dress.  Everyone in the freshman class is new here.  This is both good and bad.  You’ll need to put some effort into getting involved with groups on campus and making some new friends.  It’s tempting to go to class and go home; but it’s worth your time to get to know people.  It comes in very handy when you end up with a 2 hour break between classes and want a lunch buddy or someone to study with; if you miss a class and need to copy someone’s notes.  And you really do get so much more out of college if you know people and are involved on campus.  It doesn’t seem so much like work and just waiting out the semester as something fun to do.
  2. If you didn’t study or do much homework in high school – that is over. Even for the best students in high school, college will present challenges that require time and effort.  It’s important to know your own strengths and weaknesses and be aware that there will be classes that you feel like you put every spare minute into just to get by.  Luckily there will be other classes that come more easily to you and you won’t need to invest as much effort to do well.  But learn to study and develop good habits early.
  3. It’s ok to ask for help.  Your professors don’t expect you to know the material when you walk in the door – that’s why you’re taking the class.  Everyone (yes, everyone) struggles sometimes.  It is perfectly ok to admit that you’re lost, don’t understand the material, or just need a little extra practice.  You’re paying a bunch of money to be here and learn, don’t let the idea that you “should” be able to get this get in the way of doing that.  The more you work at it, the better it gets, but sometimes you need some assistance.  Find a tutor in the Learning Center, ask for extra help from the instructor, or gather some classmates to study together.
  4. Your professor’s office hours are for you.  Your instructors enjoy what they’re teaching and want their students to do well.  Office hours are an open invitation for you to come talk with the professors about the class – areas where you’re struggling, topics you’re especially interested in, or any other questions you may have.  Stop by and say hello.  They’re waiting.
  5. Take advantage of the services available to you on campus – it’s part of your tuition. Colleges come with built-in services to make your life easier and to help you succeed.  In fact, the university very much wants you to do well and schools like Ohio State are especially proud of their successful students.  To help you along the way there are dozens of folks on campus just waiting to help you with financial aid, figuring out your major and taking the right classes to get you done in four years, support you when you’re stressed out or dealing with personal crises, get your online, figure out your budget and transportation issues, find a job or internship, and more.  Have a problem or concern?  There’s likely someone on campus whose job it is to help you work it out!  And now, many campuses (including OSU Lima) have programs specifically for first generation students.  Not sure who that would be?  Start with the Student Wellness Center (Galvin 107A), they know about all of these services and can help you go in the right direction.
  6. Balance is important – work, family, school, personal & social time, homework. Your life has many pieces and it’s best if they can fit together in a nice, workable way.  It doesn’t always happen, or happen easily, but it’s important to figure out the balance that works for you.  There is no right answer here.  Taking a full course load isn’t right for everyone.  Working full time won’t work for everyone.  It’s tempting to look at your class schedule and see all the open blocks of time as time that you could be at a job (or with friends or gaming or anything else).  But remember that homework has to fit in there somewhere too.  Very few students can manage to work full time and go to school full time successfully.  There is financial aid to help if you can’t work full time to pay for school (just remember to only use what you need, because if you’re taking out loans, someone will come asking for that money back eventually).
  7. You should know how to check into the requirements for your degree and where you stand in the progress toward the degree yourself. You can look up the requirements for any program on the department’s website.  Know the difference between the General Education (GE or Gen Ed) requirements for your program and the requirements for the major.  They’re not the same thing.  You can look all this up online on your own.  And at any time, you can run a degree audit to see which classes you have completed and which classes you still need to finish up.
  8. Things will change with your family.  This is one of the things about transitioning into college that no one talks much about, and is especially true for first gen students.  After a while, it may see that you have more difficulty communicating with your family; they may feel that they don’t understand you as well; there is a growing divide between you.  This transition happens for all students, but for those whose parents went to college, they have a better understanding of what their child is going through and what it is like to be a new college student.  Remember that these challenges don’t have to be permanent and that it doesn’t mean your parents don’t love and support you.  It just means that you’re in a position they have never been in.  Being patient with each other as you figure out your new, more adult relationship is vital.

What if your teachers knew …?

Over the summer, Ohio State Lima Counseling Services office (LCCS) began a project aimed at connecting our faculty and our students.  And so far, the results have been exciting!!

Every year Kyle Schwartz, a third-grade teacher in Denver, Co, asks her students to fill out index cards anonymously completing the sentence, “I wish my teacher knew …”  This year, she began posting some of her students’ thought-provoking, sometimes poignant responses on Twitter.  She gained attention from around the world, and other teachers have tried her project in their classes as well.  It has been a way for Ms. Schwartz to learn about her students, feel connected to them, and for them to feel that they are cared about as individuals.  You can check her out yourself on Twitter @kylemschwartz or read some of the news stories linked below.

This year, we wanted to try something similar with our students.  We know our students come from a variety of backgrounds and have diverse family situations, interests, and motivations for being on our campus.  We also know that it’s important for their academic success to be engaged in the campus community.  To that end, Counseling Services has planned several outreach programs for the upcoming year to facilitate engagement.

But first, we needed the faculty’s help!  We asked our faculty to set a good example and to also be engaged in the campus community in this way.  We gave them each an index card and and asked them to complete the sentence “I wish my students knew …”  They could leave the card anonymous, and it could say anything they wished to communicate to students.
0824151311-1Our goal was for all of our faculty to take a moment to consider something (or more than one something) they’d like students to know.  Something about them, about teaching, about surviving college, something they wish someone had told them when they started this journey.

Well, our faculty did not disappoint!!  They shared with us personal stories, their love for teaching, and much more.  We’re posting these bits of insight and wisdom on our Facebook page with the hashtag #iwishmystudentsknew.  Keep an eye out for them.  We’ll also use them in student events that we conduct throughout the year.

Now it’s the students’ turn.  During Autumn semester, we will be collecting similar cards from students and sharing their responses with faculty, administration, and the larger campus community.  These will show up under the hashtag #Iwishmyteacherknew.

Want to see more?  Check out our Facebook page to keep up with what your teachers have to say, and what other Lima Buckeyes are saying.



More about Kyle Schwartz’s project:  (search: I wish my teacher knew)