A First-Generation College Student’s Guide to Freshman Year

Read these helpful tips for first-generation college students here.

Jason Armijo struggled to figure out what he was going to eat for dinner almost every day his first semester in college. He worked during his university dining hall’s dinner hours, often getting home from his job at a local hospital after 11 p.m.

About a week before the end of his first semester, he found out that he had $600 in flex points that would soon expire. Jason had no idea what flex points were, or that he had been missing out on “free food money” for so long.

Jason invited all of his friends to the cafeteria and told them to get whatever they wanted. “We had a feast,” he chuckled.  

Looking back on his first-semester famine, Jason can laugh. He said it’s sad, however, to think about just how much he didn’t know about college or how to navigate life as a first-semester freshman.

As a first-generation college student at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, Jason said he experienced a bit of culture shock. Most of his classmates didn’t look like him — Mexican and Italian with olive skin — and didn’t come from low-income families.

Because Jason didn’t want to further burden his parents, who sacrificed a lot to send him to private school pre-k through high school, Jason worked full-time off campus while navigating a full course load. There was the added pressure of trying to learn how to be a college student without anyone’s footsteps to follow; many of his family members had never graduated from high school, let alone college.

Jason said there were many times he wanted to give up, especially during his first year. Here are four things he wishes he could tell his first-semester self — insights that might prove helpful for first-generation college students today.

Ask lots of questions.

Between working full-time and trying to keep up with his coursework, Jason said he felt like he didn’t have the mental capacity to even think about what questions to ask his first semester.

“Ask every question of every person that you know,” he said. “Seek out sophomores and ask: What are things that I should know? What are things that I should avoid? I was way too timid,” Jason said.

Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know what a twin-long sheet or flex points are. First-generation college student or not, college comes with its own lingo and traditions. Befriending and asking questions of upperclassmen will save you a lot of confusion and heartache.

Find a community of support.

After feeling like he was just treading water his first year, Jason found a faith-based community that served as his support system.

Jason said his faith was something solid in an uncertain time. “With your faith, you know what you believe in and why you believe that. I don’t think I would have made it through college without the group I found through university ministry,” he said.

Jason said finding a community of support was critical to helping him not only survive, but thrive in college.

Connecting with a like-minded community also led Jason to an on-campus job as a campus ministry leader his junior and senior year, a role in which he was able to provide spiritual direction and that helped him feel more connected to the greater university community.

Whether it’s through your dorm, an intramural or club sports team, a study group within your major, a music or theater group, community service or social justice, or a faith-based group like Jason found, getting involved in something that matters to you can lead you to the people who will become your biggest support system and closest friends.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“As freshmen, you’re all new at this,” Jason said. You’re navigating a campus, living with your classmates, figuring out how to deal with both the freedom and pressures that college brings.

Is there a mentoring program at your university? If so, take advantage of it. If not, is there an upperclassman you admire who would be willing to serve as your unofficial mentor?

Jason started using his university’s free tutoring service when he learned about it his sophomore year. He said he wishes he would have known about it as a freshman. Whether you are struggling with a specific subject, want to learn skills to help you study better, or need help preparing for a big exam, a tutor can make a big difference.

In addition to tutoring, Jason said he benefited from free counseling services his university provided. “I would meet with my counselor twice a week for half an hour. We’d talk about what was going on at home, in school, where I was struggling,” he said.

College comes with big changes, no matter if you’re a first-generation student or not. Talking to someone outside of your immediate family or friend circle can help you process those changes and deal with stress in healthy ways.

Assume people are kind and want to help.

“Have faith in people that they want to help you,” Jason said. After consistently missing dinner at the dining hall due to his off-campus job, Jason said he finally got the courage to ask his supervisor if he could leave at 10:45 p.m. to have a hot meal on campus. His supervisor was more than willing to accommodate his request. 

Use office hours. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, whether you’re in a big lecture or a small seminar. Your professors are there to help, and the relationships you form with them can be instrumental after college, too, as you apply to jobs, graduate school, etc.

Most people are flattered when you ask for help and will go out of their way to support you.

You don’t need to try to do it all on your own.

His first year in college, Jason said he felt like he was struggling alone. He thought that his college success story would be better if he did it all on his own, but he soon realized that wasn’t an option.

“You have to rely on other people,” he said. There’s no award at graduation for the person who did it all on their own.

Jason said when he thinks back on his college experience, “It took pretty much everything that I had to finish school.”

In middle school, Jason remembers his teachers telling him, “You are going to end up just like your brother,” who joined a gang at an early age. Well, not only did Jason graduate with his B.A. from Regis University in 2016 with an English major and minor in secondary education, he’s currently working toward a master’s degree as a reading specialist while teaching high school English. He’s set to earn his graduate degree in 2021.

If you’re struggling right now, Jason can empathize: “Hang in there. It’s worth it.” 

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