If you’re headed to college this fall, here’s four tips to make your first year as successful as mine

When I started at Claremont McKenna College (CMC) this past fall as a first-generation college student from Denver, I knew I was in for a big transition. While many of my fellow classmates had parents to help them adjust to the unfamiliar world of college, I was essentially alone when I got to campus.

But I was extremely fortunate to have graduated from DSST: Cole High School, part of the DSST Public Schools charter network, which exposed me to rigorous academic expectations, challenging coursework and most importantly, teachers who believed in me and wanted me to succeed.

The news about affluent parents bribing colleges to gain admission for their children might still seem shocking to some, but for me, the Varsity Blues scandal was just another proof point for the inequality of opportunity in education. As I am surrounded by wealthy peers in my dorm and classrooms, I know that college is not a level playing field. But I am lucky to have had teachers and advisors who helped me figure out how to get in and stay in the game.

Now that I am almost through my freshman year, there are four lessons I’d like to pass on to students like me who want to get into and succeed in college:

Lesson #1: Get real-world exposure while you’re still in high school. When I was at DSST: Cole High School, I joined the Denver Public Schools Student Board of Education, which promotes student voice and leadership, builds relationships between students and adults and works to create a positive environment. Through this role, I worked on projects to benefit my public school, such as fundraising to install new water fountains and facilitating a college and career day, as well as other district-wide efforts. Being part of the Student Board of Education fostered my interest in social justice and taught me how to work with other students, present my ideas and communicate with adults.

DSST also helped me get an internship, where I explored whether I wanted to pursue an engineering career. This exposure was critical to choosing the right college, as it ironically made me realize that I did not want to pursue a job in a STEM field. Once I knew that I was not destined to become an engineer, my counselors at DSST helped me to discover a college where I could explore many different fields of study before picking one academic focus.

Lesson #2: Find a college where you can grow and develop. I was fortunate to receive excellent support from DSST throughout the process of applying to college, pursuing financial aid, and choosing the right school. The choices were hard and I’m not sure I would have landed at CMC without my college guidance counselors, but it’s the perfect fit. CMC offered me a generous tuition package and allowed me to take lots of different classes before choosing a major. I am currently considering a double major in international relations and media studies, which are both exciting and dynamic areas to pursue.

Lesson #3: Reach out for help when you need it. When I first started classes at Claremont McKenna College, I found it challenging to juggle all the demands and wasn’t sure how to manage my time. I was used to working hard because of DSST, but the professors at CMC did not seem as accessible and I wasn’t sure how to get extra help. It was daunting to reach out for help, but then I realized I had to take it upon myself to get help when I needed it. After taking advantage of resources like open office hours, I soon realized that my professors were more than willing to make things work for me.  

Lesson #4: Don’t compare yourself to others. During fall semester, I assumed that everyone else had it figured out while I often felt overwhelmed. I eventually came to see that many of my peers had challenges and each of us go at our own pace to adjust to life in college. And most importantly, I concluded that staying on my own path is all that matters and sometimes failure is a necessary part of the process.

I am grateful for the support I’ve received from my parents, teachers, and counselors and for their belief that I can not only make it to college but also graduate ready to take on the world. I hope other first-generation students will believe that they too are capable of overcoming obstacles, no matter how difficult they seem.

And while the media continues to focus on a tiny number of ultra-wealthy kids and families who bought their way into college, I’d prefer to shine a light on the thousands of students who, like me, are honestly earning our own way, determined to not let anything stand in the way of our dreams.

Flor Canales is a first-generation college student currently finishing her first year at Claremont McKenna and is an alumni of DSST: Cole High School.

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