5 ways first-gen freshmen—and all freshmen—can start the year off right

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, editor

As colleges prepare to welcome their next class of students to campus this summer, I've been reflecting on my own experience as a first-generation student.

I recently came across an article by Clara-Meretan Kiah for FIU News with suggestions for incoming students, and I thought that many of her recommendations would certainly have been helpful for me. I wanted to share her tips with our readers—I hope you and your students will find them valuable.

1. Visit an academic advisor

Kiah shares a suggestion from Korrin Anderson, FIU's interim director of Orientation and Parent Programs, that incoming students visit their advisors within their first six weeks on campus.

Kiah also encourages incoming students to visit their academic advisors at least once per semester and suggests some topics for students to discuss with their advisors, such as choosing classes and enrolling in 15 credits per semester.

First-generation students may be especially likely to delay visiting their advisors, according to experts, because they aren't sure what kind of help advisors are supposed to provide. To help make advising more visible, experts recommend that university websites, apps, and social media channels should clearly explain common knowledge gaps, such as:

  • How to communicate with advisors;
  • The benefits of advising;
  • What to expect from advising; and
  • Where to go for additional support.

2. Take a proactive approach to learning

Freshmen may be unprepared for classes that have hundreds of students in them, Kiah writes. Success in these classes requires a bit more of a proactive approach than students may be accustomed to. Kiah recommends several strategies for students, such as scheduling study time and visiting office hours, even if students don't have questions.

"Office hours" can be one of those terms that are very familiar to those of us who work in higher education but sounds like a foreign language to first-generation students. I've read narratives from other first-generation students who say they thought office hours were a time when the professor wanted to work quietly in his or her office and shouldn't be disturbed. Others say they aren't sure what they're supposed to talk about.

It's a good idea to make sure you clearly explain for new students what office hours are and give some examples of questions students should bring to them. And repeat the message often—orientation is so overwhelming that students don't always remember everything they hear that week.

3. Find a co-curricular activity

Kiah notes that clubs can help freshmen not only meet friends, but also practice leadership and other important lifelong skills. Students often need help understanding the value of co-curricular activities for their future careers, according to EAB research. Colleges can help by listing the skills students practice in different activities, creating a tool that helps students build their resumes, or running targeted resume workshops.

Despite the usefulness of co-curricular activities, Anderson encourages new college students to limit themselves to one activity during their first year to avoid overwhelming themselves during the transition. This might be especially important advice for first-generation students and community college students, both of whom are more likely to be juggling additional responsibilities outside of class.

4. Visit the career center

Freshman year is not too soon to start thinking about professional development, Kiah writes. She encourages incoming students to visit the university's career center during their first year on campus, as well as start looking for internship opportunities during school breaks.

Waiting to visit the career center is one of the most common blunders students make, Jeffrey Selingo wrote in a 2016 article. Too many students think of it as "just an office you visit the second semester of your senior year," he wrote. He argued that it's critical to emphasize that professional development is actually "a four-year journey."

5. Meet people

Kiah encourages freshmen to set a goal of making one new friend per week during their first semester—"all you have to do is say hi to the person sitting next to you in class," she writes. Kiah also explains that there is a wide campus support network, such as the counseling center, resident assistants, and academic success center, to help students in need.

As with advising, many first generation students can also be confused and overwhelmed by the array of services on campus. Navigating these resources is the "hidden curriculum" of college, the undefined cultural norms, processes, and assumptions essential to navigating the academic, social, and administrative elements of college life, writes Ed Venit, an EAB expert on student success.

To serve first-generation students, Venit recommends launching awareness campaigns specifically targeted to first-generation students and making it easier for all students to find the resources they need on campus (Kiah, FIU News, 6/22).

Read more: Two ways colleges can help first-generation students succeed

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