an open letter to prospective first generation (or low SES) college students

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MSU circa 2009

 

You may feel that college is out of reach for you. That it is far too expensive. Or you’re just confused how the hell to navigate the entire system of higher ed. I get you. I get it. Don’t give up.

When I applied to college, my family was in shambles. My parents were getting a divorce. We had no money to spare. I shared a tiny bedroom with my sister in a two-bedroom apartment. My life was falling apart. Quite literally, we were fortunate to have food on the table every night. My mom was running our family. She went from being a stay at home mom for 20 something years to running the show. She got a full-time job and provided for us all. My mother is the greatest display of a go-getter. Those were some really shitty years but we made it-I love you mom. Thank you.

My whole life I had been working my ass off in school to go to college. No one in my family ever had and it was my dream. I got really good grades, was involved in extracurricular activities, etc. I began working when I was 16 years old as a server at a retirement home. At that point in time, the money from work was going to bills. I was paying for my own car, cell phone, clothes, etc. It was not feasible for me to save for college.

My family was between states during my senior year of high school. I decided to home-school for my last year and graduated a semester early. I started at Schoolcraft Community College winter 2008, what would have technically been my last semester of high school. For years I was bitter about my senior year of high school. I had looked forward to that year for so long- graduating, the cap and gown, senior trip, senior photos, etc. But I got over that quick as my focus honed in on college and succeeding there.

I did 12 months at Schoolcraft Community College before transferring to Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. I got a lot of my pre-requisites done for FREE at Schoolcraft. But I wanted the experience of living away at college and so I went for it. At MSU, I was half grants because of my grades and half loans. I was at MSU for three years and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Social Work and a Minor in Women’s and Gender Studies.

I was accepted into a 12-month accelerated Master’s in Social Work program at the University of Michigan. At this time, I chose to move back home with my mom and now step-dad. I lived at home for free, had hot meals, and the support of my family. And still- ONE year of tuition at UM for grad school cost me the same as THREE years at MSU.

I graduated July 2013 with a master’s in social work and have been THANKFULLY working full-time ever since. I began paying my loans back 6 months after graduation and immediately applied for an income-based repayment plan.

That is a very short summary of the years of stress and tears navigating higher education cost me. I have no regrets. I made my decisions and am happy I did.

I love talking with other first generation college students that are just beginning to navigate the system of higher ed themselves. There is so much excitement–and stress. So much worry and doubt. But I truly believe that first generation college students are some of the strongest people around.

Below is a bulleted list of advice I wish I had known and wish to share.

  • Grades matter. Money is given based on income level, yes. But additional money is often given based on merit. You need all the money you can get. A lot of the money I got at MSU was because of my grades. Grades matter. A lot.
  • Find a mentor. Someone who has or is going to college and talk to them. Ask them a million questions. Pick their brain. I have multiple mentors that I write consistently. Even to this day!
  • Fill out the FAFSA as early as possible. WTF is the FAFSA? Your key to college. You will need your parent(s) to fill out the FAFSA with you. You will need ALL of your tax information. Each year you fill it out, it will get easier. You may want to cry the first time you fill it out because it feels so complicated; I cried. Ask questions. Talk to financial aid department at the college/university you are applying to. They are there to help. Financial aid departments have told me that it is crucial to fill out the FAFSA as early as possible. This means your taxes must be filed as soon as possible.
  • One of my biggest pieces of advice: GO TO COMMUNITY COLLEGE FIRST. I know it feels way less fun when people are moving away and living in dorms. But you can take the EXACT same classes at a community college for your prerequisites that you would at a four year institution. You save MEGA money. And I loved my professors at community college! There are tons of ways to be involved at community college too- clubs, events, sports, etc.
  • Before applying to MSU I tried to go to a private school in Nashville, TN. It didn’t work out because it was wayyyy too damn expensive. I highly suggest attending a public school– in your state of residence if you are open to it. Out of state tuition is crazy more expensive. In-state tuition is expensive enough!
  • Take advantage of all the resources at your disposal. There are SO many free resources at colleges/universities. At MSU, there was free counseling, resources and grants for student parents, free career services, women’s resource centers, etc. You will become a pro at finding resources and using them. Spread the word. These are there FOR YOU. You MUST be your own advocate.
  • Buy books used. Always. Sometimes I would talk to professors and ask if it would be ok if I bought an older edition of a book because it was usually 1/4 the cost. Often, it was fine. You might just have to work a little harder to be on the right page in class because the page numbers are different per edition. Not much changes per edition other than that–text books are a money making scheme. Your worst nightmare will be course packs. Course packs are sets of papers that include readings, worksheets, and more. If you can, share with a friend. Make copies if you can. They are ridiculously expensive.
  • Unless it is absolutely necessary or you’re commuting, don’t take a car away to school if you have one. In my experience, parking on any college campus is INSANELY expensive. Per semester at MSU, I had to pay nearly $200 to park. Don’t even get me started on parking at meters. The # of parking tickets I have gotten in East Lansing and Ann Arbor -_- Also, there is usually some type of free or cheap bus. When I went to MSU, I walked everywhere and never took the bus. It also helps you stay physically active.
  • Work  hard, play hard. College is supposed to be fun. Join 1 (or 10) student organizations. Balance is key and you will work your whole college career to understand how to balance. Actually, I think this is a life process. Go out and make friends. If you are attending a big school, it is actually so easy to feel isolated and alone. It will be hard in the beginning, but GO to events and programs. Go to the cheesy bingo game on your dorm floor and eat tons of pizza and cookies. You will be happy you did.
  • I never did this and slightly regret it, but consider applying to be a Resident Assistant (RA) in a dorm. Typically, you get FREE room and board. But it does come with responsibilities.
  • Get to know your professors. This is important. One day, you will need recommendation letters and references. Whether it be for grad school or a job, you will need them. Not only that, but professors have a shit ton of wisdom to offer. They are working in the system you’re navigating. ASK THEM QUESTIONS.
  • Don’t give up. It’s ok to cry. I did often in college. Every semester i just hoped I could afford all my books and have food to eat. College is fun, but hard. It’s really hard. It’s expensive and feels very out of reach. You will feel so overwhelmed when you look at how much money you owe. The best piece of advice I got in grad school was to just take it month by month. Your student loan payment becomes factored into your budget  and is another monthly bill due. It sucks but you do it. And you won’t regret it. Because you made it and you now have a degree to prove it. Cheers, my friend.

 

This is only my perspective. In many ways, I know I was still privileged as a first-gen student. I made it, I did it. Not everyone does. Grants helped me, not everyone can get those. My family helped me, not everyone has that support. I am thankful and acknowledge these things. Everyone’s experience is different and challenging in some way. Talking to other first generation or low income students will prove to be very helpful. Some colleges and universities even have student organizations for purely first-gen students. Join!!

 

Hopefully affording college will not be such a shit show one day. Let’s make that happen.

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xoxo,

Jessica

 

 

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