Dear First-Generation College Student,
More than 35 years ago, I packed everything I could fit into the old Pontiac Catalina my grandparents helped me buy and drove halfway across the country to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU Boulder). I did not know what I was doing. My parents had not gone to college. Three of my grandparents had not even graduated from high school. No one in my extended family could advise me about choosing or preparing for college, let alone navigating a large university once I got there. I had to figure college out on my own because I believed that I could become the first in my family to earn a degree, and I had to find it in myself to be brave enough to try.
Coming from New Jersey, I knew I needed to become an in-state resident in order to afford the tuition in Colorado. So, I got a new driver’s license, rented a tiny apartment and picked up three part-time jobs – working at Taco Bell, as a receptionist for an eye doctor and selling Avon door-to-door. This was my dream come true?
Dr. Carolyn Stefanco
Many of you may have similar feelings, especially those of you who stepped onto campus for the very first time this semester. Your last few months have been filled with new experiences and emotions, lots of questions and maybe even a little doubt and apprehension as to whether you belong.
So as many of you prepare to return home to see your families for Thanksgiving and winter break, I urge you to reflect on what you have achieved during your first semester. Build on those accomplishments and continue to grow, keeping in mind that college is a learning experience for all students, particularly those like you and me – the first in our families to pursue a college education.
Here are six important lessons that I wish someone had shared with me when I arrived at CU Boulder. I encourage all first-generation college students to remember each of these points, especially during the first year:
Because there was no one in my family who could tell me the difference between a registrar and a bursar, I had to read things like the catalog myself (a paper document in those days) carefully and ask a lot of questions. With all the information I gathered, I made detailed plans for each semester. I ultimately managed to complete my major, a teaching credential, and a certificate in three and a half years.
Higher education attracts faculty and staff who are serious about their work, and who believe in the transformational power of education. Trust me, they notice students who work hard. This does not mean that they expect you to be perfect.
As an undergraduate, there were times I doubted myself and worried. I routinely put off starting homework and assignments until shortly before they were due, probably because of self-doubt. I read a lot and took copious notes to prepare for projects, but I took a long time to get started on them. Always remember that you are in school to learn.
College is an exciting experience, one that will likely transform your life. Take it from me – a first-generation college student who went on to become a college president – your possibilities are limitless. I am rooting for you.
Dr. Carolyn J. Stefanco
Dr. Carolyn J. Stefanco is president of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York and is a first-generation college student herself.