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An open letter to first-generation college students


Higher education isn’t about memorizing the right facts — it’s about learning how to learn.

Originally published by Volume One

I began my college career behind the eight ball.

While my grades in high school were decent enough (although by no means valedictorian worthy), my SAT scores were embarrassingly low. When I began college, there was absolutely nothing remarkable about my academic track record, save for a few teacher-nominated writing awards.

My high school also had an astonishingly low graduation rate, and an even lower college attendance rate — two details that the mainstream media in New York City would exploit until the mayor shut down the school six years after I graduated.

On top of these issues — and like many of you — I was the first in my family to attend college.

All of this is to say that I was absolutely terrified. I had no idea what I was doing and no idea about how to remedy that fact. My family and I had very few connections to anyone who might have offered real insights into what college would be like and what it would take to succeed.

Which means that, like many of you, I received the same, tired advice by a lot of people who also did not know any better.

My well-meaning parents had an interesting way of making this transition even more nerve-wracking, bless their hearts. When I moved into my dorm for the first time, we stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by boxes. My mother then set a plant on top of my desk.

“If you can’t manage to take care of this plant,” she said, “then you’re probably not taking care of yourself, either. Which means you’ll be coming home for good.”

(My mother said she was joking, but if I know my mother, she was probably only half-joking.)

Not only did I have to worry about watering this random plant, but — get ready — I also failed the very first college exam I had ever taken.

I still remember the score. I earned a 48 percent (out of 100 percent, to be sure). I’ll never forget that Psychology 101 exam for as long as I live. Not because I was rabidly obsessed with perfection (after all, I graduated high school with a low “B” average), but because – in my mind at the time – that 48 percent represented something foreboding. Something heartbreaking.

To me, that test score was a reflection of my overall ability to succeed at the college level. That one test score — earned about three or four weeks after school started — was somehow a predictor of my future success.

To me, that test was also a commentary on my humble beginnings.

Maybe I’m just not meant to go to college, I remember thinking, in tears.

Note, however, my use of the word “earn,” throughout this essay. I did not say that my professor “gave” me that 48 percent. My professor gave me nothing more than the test on which I earned that 48 percent.

One of my mentors taught me that a good test is an occasion for continued learning. That test taught me something important. It taught me a lot about what I was doing wrong.

The sciences never came easy to me, but I did well enough. I was able to skate through high school without asking for much help.

As long as I memorize what the teacher wants me to memorize, I thought, I’ll be fine.

That test taught me that — unlike virtually every other experience I’d had with school at that point — college was not going to work that way. It taught me that I actually had to think. That my system for memorizing random facts and figures was not going to work, at least not as well as it had before. I learned the hard way that I was responsible for applying and analyzing (and sometimes challenging) the content that I was consuming. In short, college forced me to learn how to learn. 

I also learned that when you are approached with an opportunity for improvement, you take it. So when the professor offered extra credit, I took it.

It was a few months before I understood that that experience was not going to make, break, or in any way define my college career (as a first-generation student, I mistakenly believed that it would). In truth, however, it was a few years before I began to feel like I belonged in college. For this first-generation college student, being accepted into a college was the easy part. Believing that I belonged there was a challenge I did not anticipate facing.

I now think of college in the way I think about language learning. Some people are lucky enough to grow up having several languages under their belt (I very much envy these people). Other people, however, are tasked with learning a new language – in this case, the language of college. Like language learning, you’ll have no idea what you’re looking at when you first begin. You’ll mispronounce many words. (Like the time I was in France and asked the waitress for glaciers in my water when what I really meant was ice cubes. She stared at me blankly. I never did get my ice cubes. Or my glaciers.) You’ll study, and memorize, and study some more, and it still won’t click as quickly as you want it to, if it clicks at all.

And eventually, you’ll start to form sentences. And then paragraphs. Maybe an essay. And then you’ll meet up with friends to practice your new language. And before you know it, you’ll be fluent. That’s what transitioning into college was like, for this first generation student.

This is all to say that I may have begun my college career behind the eight ball, but I didn’t stay there. And if you feel like I felt all those years ago, I promise, neither will you.


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