When college classes begin this summer and fall, thousands of students stepping onto college campuses will be the first person in their family to ever do so as a student.
Former first lady Michelle Obama said that, for her, attending college as a first-generation college student was like learning “a whole new language.”
“It was an out-of-body kind of experience,” Obama said Thursday of being a freshman at Princeton University. “I went to public schools. I grew up on [Chicago’s] South Side. [I had] working-class parents who didn’t go to college.”
This is me at Princeton in the early 1980s. I know that being a first-generation college student can be scary, because it was scary for me. I was black and from a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, while Princeton’s student body was generally white and well-to-do. I’d never stood out in a crowd or a classroom because of the color of my skin before. But I found close friends and a mentor who gave me the confidence to be myself. Going to college is hard work, but every day I meet people whose lives have been profoundly changed by education, just as mine was. My advice to students is to be brave and stay with it. Congratulations to the Class of 2018! #ReachHigher
Obama went on to graduate from Princeton and Harvard Law School, had a successful career in law and hospital administration, and made her mark as first lady of the United States.
She spoke to incoming first-generation college students Thursday at the #BeatingTheOdds summit, organized by Better Make Room, the organization that supports the Reach Higher initiative Obama started as first lady.
“College is the BEST idea. For four years or more…you will be living on your own…What is the rush? College is THE experience. Take this time and appreciate this.” –@MichelleObama speaking the truth. #BeatingTheOdds https://t.co/UfmR6hgk30
— Better Make Room ?? (@BetterMakeRoom) June 14, 2018
Obama, speaking alongside stars including Daveed Diggs and La La Anthony, shared her words of advice for first-generation members of the Class of 2022.
1. Don’t be isolated
Don’t do this in isolation. Find your community. Find a community for yourself. Whether that’s through sports or it’s a cultural organization or a minority student group. Finding a cohort for your place and starting to build your community is going to be important.
College wasn’t meant to be alone.
2. Engage in campus life
If you find yourself with too much idle time sitting alone, ask yourself, “How can I break out of my comfort zone and get out of my dorm room and start living in the campus community and start taking advantage of that?”
3. Ask for help
Ask for help, and early and often. Ask for help. If you’re sitting in a lecture or a class and you feel like you’re lost, don’t wait until the middle of the semester. Go right away.
“Ask for help! When you’re sitting in a lecture or classroom and you feel like you’re lost–ask for help…every college wants you to succeed…and you WILL succeed.” –@MichelleObama at our #BeatingTheOdds Summit pic.twitter.com/kHvudNWSXV
— Better Make Room ?? (@BetterMakeRoom) June 14, 2018
There are support systems on all these college campuses but, again, nobody is going to find you. You’re going to have to go and seek them out. When you do, people will be there for you.
4. Find your passions
I was a master box-checker. Get these grades, okay, check. Got the grades. Do the test. Take the test. Apply to school. Get in. Get good grades. Go to law school. Check. Check. Check.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I looked up and realized that I was so busy checking the boxes that I didn’t check with what and who I wanted to be. By then I was a lawyer and with a lot of debt.
You should be using this time to explore yourself and your passions, too.
That’s easier said than done when you’re accumulating debt and you feel like, “Oh, I don’t have time to waste.” And, of course, you don’t want to waste time, but there is something to be said for not just trying to get through stuff and experiencing it.
5. Enjoy it
College is the experience. Work is work. Even if you love it, it’s a job. Take this time and appreciate this because when you’re young you don’t. You’re always thinking that there’s another thing.
College is really — if you let go of the fear and the worry — it is really a great opportunity just to grow up in a safe-ish environment where you get to try out some things and your mistakes won’t crush you.
To the first-gen students I met today and those across the country, I want you to know how incredibly proud I am of you. I know it wasn’t easy to get to this point, and I know you might be nervous about starting your college journey. But as a first-gen college student myself, I can promise that your education will open doors you never could have imagined. During my time at Princeton, I meet so many amazing people, was exposed to all kinds of new ideas and experiences, and learned a lot about who I am and what I wanted to do in the world. So when you face challenges or obstacles, don’t get discouraged — ask for help. Experiencing failure and learning from it is an important part of the college experience, and there are so many people in your corner who are rooting for you and want to see you succeed. I’m one of them! I believe in you, and I cannot wait to see what you will achieve. #BetterMakeRoom
In college, you can fail a lot and you have people whose job it is to support you. That’s not going to happen any other time in your life.
Think about the benefits and the joy of college and enjoy it.
Ready for more college motivation? Here are 11 epic graduation speeches.