The Rapidian

First Generation Student: College life

Each new student has a number of opportunities to get involved in college life and to use their experiences for better learning and networking.
Lisa McNeilley

Lisa McNeilley

Underwriting support from:

Need to Know

Building a network is one of the crucial goals of college because this is where you will find most of your opportunities throughout your career.


The NEED TO KNOW college success workshop by Lisa McNeilley offers in-depth information and activities to build important skills for college.Free resources for students are also available at 

I grew up in a small town. Our claim to fame was that we were the only town in the USA that had a pig farm in its downtown. My dad dropped out of high school to join the Navy, and my mom was a first generation English speaker. She took college classes at night when I was in high school, so I got to learn a little about how college worked from her. But as the first generation of my family to attend a traditional college, I definitely didn’t have exposure to the range of experiences that other students with college-educated parents with more money took for granted.

When I started at the University of Michigan, I had my first exposure to a culture dedicated to achieving excellence, but many of my fellow students came from a culture that stressed high achievement. It took me a while to realize that those kids had an advantage—and it took me even longer to figure out how I could get the same advantage.

The kids I met in college grew up in homes where their parents’ friends were lawyers and doctors and professors. They had summer jobs in their parents’ offices. They spoke to adults with confidence that I never felt. Their parents used their connections to get internships, awards, travel abroad programs and other opportunities. I didn’t even know this was happening. If you come from a family without connections to the professionals who can help you network, you will have to find substitutes. Building a network is one of the crucial goals of college because this is where you will find most of your opportunities throughout your career.

First, you need to get comfortable talking to authority figures, like your professors. Practice introducing yourself to your professors. Prepare questions to ask during class or to discuss after class. Make sure you know the material so you can answer questions posed by your professors during class discussions (all this means you have to read the assigned material before class). You want them to remember you so even a year later you can approach them for letters of recommendation or even referrals for internships and jobs.

When I got to college, it seemed like everybody knew more than I did. My classmates learned about history, art and geography because they had travelled around the world (vacations for my family meant visiting other family members). In their schools they were exposed to a more classical education and had read Plato and (insert names of other obscure historical figures here) and studied the writings of Charlotte Bronte and (insert names of other obscure literary figures here). Their families discussed news and ideas at the dinner table. Even though I had been one of the top students in my high school class, I couldn’t match their casual knowledge.

Fortunately, a college campus offers a variety of events where you can experience the world. While you are on campus, use the campus newspapers and websites to take advantage of free cultural activities. Supplement your learning with TED talks and other online research. Read books on a wide range of topics over the summer and in your free time. Or here’s the easiest thing—just ask other students about their travels, what they have seen, and what they learned.

As a student, I worked about 30 hours a week while taking a full load of classes (I don’t recommend this—if you have to work, try to keep it under 20 hours a week). I paid all my own expenses. Many of my classmates still got allowances from their parents and they knew about the stock market and investment accounts because that is what their parents were using to pay for their college tuition. When everybody wanted to pitch in for a party or meet at a local restaurant, I was using my own money—money that was sometimes intended to pay my bills. It’s a tough situation to have to decide to do something you can’t afford or admit to your friends that you don’t have the money.  

So I developed some strategies to deal with this.

Budgeting is very important, and if you can set aside a little for fun activities, you just have to pick the ones you participate in—and it might not be everything. If you have to go to a restaurant, get the menu beforehand and decide what you can pay for. Make sure you also ask for a separate check so you don’t get stuck splitting the bill for everyone else’s food. Become the person who plans the parties or organizes study groups. Then you can decide to meet in places that are affordable and have food you recognize. Find places on campus that have study areas and access to food that you can use your meal plan to buy. I did find that if I had to just say that I didn’t have the money, friends generally understood and often found alternatives—and the ones who overspent their allowances were sometimes in the same situation.

At U of M, I joined the Michigan Business Women and met others who were working for women to have the same opportunities as men, something that was important to me. Try to join one or two student organizations to round out your college experience. You might feel like you don’t have time, but there are many advantages to joining student groups—and especially if you don’t live on campus, this is the way you can get involved. You’ll also want to join organizations that reflect your culture and background—places where you will meet others with similar circumstances and life experiences. You might check with campus diversity offices to find groups that reflect your heritage. Also, look for groups that will be fun. When you join student organizations, get to know the faculty advisors. Attend department events for your major and talk to everyone—get their contact information and use it. Use your school’s career offices to find out about opportunities. These are great ways to expand your network. Student organizations like the Latino Student Union, African Student Council or the Asian Student Association also offer a support system if you run into discrimination.

College is an opportunity for you to expand your world, and find out what kind of person you want to be. The more you expose yourself to and learn about, the more you will be able to decide how your life will be moving forward. Celebrating what you love about your upbringing and culture while you explore new opportunities is the best way to optimize your experience.

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