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First-generation college students: Here’s what you need to know

Author: BHSU Communications/Thursday, January 18, 2018/Categories: Students, Academic Affairs, Community, Faculty, Staff, 2018

What is a credit hour? How do I apply for financial aid? How do I live with a roommate I’ve never met before?

Every college student arrives on campus brimming with questions. For first-generation students, there is the added challenge of navigating an environment no one in their immediate family has experienced.

Studies show that first-generation students face unique obstacles during their college careers. While schools across the nation are working to eliminate these hurdles, there are attitudes and practices first-generation students can adopt to promote their personal success.

Here, student and staff voices from Black Hills State University plot the steps first-generation students can take to navigate, succeed, and celebrate their educational journey.

Before college…

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions! When you are the first of your family to go to college, you may not know ‘how to do college’ and that is okay,” says Valeriah Big Eagle, student success advisor at BHSU-Rapid City who was a first-generation student herself.

Find someone in your community who has been successful in college and ask them questions about the process. This “go-to” person might be a high school counselor or teacher—someone in your community who is passionate about education. Asking this person questions can clear up some of the “lingo” that isn’t often used outside of college (What is a “pre-req”? What does “FASFA” stand for?).

Consider the type of school that best fits your goals. Technical schools set you on a shorter track to putting hands-on knowledge into practice. Community colleges prep students with general courses and can act as a bridge between high school and other colleges. If you are interested in a bachelor’s degree or beyond, studies show that it is best for students to begin at a four-year school from the onset. The environment and resources at these schools increase students’ long-term success.

Get on a first-name basis with your college admissions representative. When you first express interest in a college, your first contact will be with an admissions representative. This person’s goal is to get you enrolled and set you on the track to success. Let them know that you are a first-generation student and ask what programs are available at that university. Admissions representatives know the ins-and-outs of the school they work for and can answer questions you have about financial aid, degree programs, and the application process.

Attend preregistration and orientation days at your school. These informational days get you familiar with your campus, course locations, dorm life, advisors, and campus resources—all before your first day of classes!

During college…

I have to work for this, I have to earn it,” reflects Khalia Rybak, a first-generation student who graduated from BHSU with her associate’s degree in general studies in December.

Take ownership of your college experience. Your college success hinges on investing the best of your time and energy. “College is 100 percent a personal motivation goal,” says Hannah Burtt, Jump Start* retention advisor at BHSU. “If you don’t want to get up in the morning and go to class, that is your prerogative. No one is going to be over your shoulder, nagging you.”

Engage with your peers through student clubs and organizations. Whether it’s attending a fall football game or joining an on-campus book club, connecting socially will make a significant impact on your college career. “The social aspect is amazingly important,” says Burtt. “Getting involved in clubs and student organizations, being open to living in the dorms and meeting new people, growing a foundation of networks—it’s vital.”

Connect with faculty and staff who can help you. This often means stepping out of your comfort zone to talk with the resident assistant in your residence hall, faculty advisor, and professors. “Asking questions was the hardest part for me to do when I was going to college,” says Big Eagle. “I did not know how to approach instructors and professors. Participating in transitional programs, such as the Bridge Program* at BHSU, is helpful for students to gain self-confidence in this area.”

Ask for help if you need it. Transitioning from high school to college can be overwhelming at times, especially being a first-generation student. Leaving the comfort of home for an unknown environment and learning how to navigate college can be stressful. “BHSU has TRIO Student Support Services* that is a great support system for first-generation students,” says Big Eagle. “There is also the Student Counseling Center, Financial Aid Services, and Academic Advising*—just to name a few resources for students looking for answers!”

Whether you’re struggling with class material, unsure of how to apply for scholarships, or simply adjusting to college life, reach out to the many services offered to students across college campuses.

After college…

“The fact that you got to where you are today speaks volumes,” says Burtt.

Inspire those who come after you. Becoming a graduate dynamically changes the opportunities available to you. Becoming a mentor for other first-generation students changes the opportunities available to others within your community. “I am encouraged when I realize what a role model I can be to those who will face the same challenges I did,” says Rybak.

Online platforms, such as I’m First, create a community where first-generation students tell their stories and inspire others to embrace their college experience.

*All BHSU Student Services mentioned in this article can be found at:

For more information about enrolling at BHSU, contact Beth Oaks, director of admissions, at (605) 642-66343 or

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