The Power to Succeed is in Your Hands

When envisioning the college application process, many individuals visualize an acceptance letter in hand to their “dream” school and a substantial college fund that will support them through all four years of their education. For others, especially those who did not grow up in the United States, this vision is incredibly divergent. 

I was born in the south of Poland, a small European country, and moved to the United States with my family when I was four years old. In Poland, and in the majority of the other European countries, tuition is free, and students attend college at almost no cost. You can imagine my family’s shock when we realized how much it would cost for both me and my twin sister to attend college here in the US – at the exact same time. I knew having two children simultaneously attending college would place a considerable financial strain on my parents, and all of a sudden my choices became very limited. The need to earn scholarships and grants became evident, and my sister and I began to feel the pressure of doing anything possible to reduce the burden. 

The college search, typically one of the most exciting phases of the process, filled me with dread and anxiety. I went through a phase of dejection and gloom; while my closest friends were traveling across state lines for their college visits, I was looking for the most inexpensive and affordable options available. After months of despondency, I soon came to realize that the “college experience” did not depend upon attending a university far away from home. 

After a significant amount of research, application fees, tours, and acceptance letters, I chose to attend the University of Connecticut, and it became one of the greatest decisions of my life. 

During my freshman year, I worked 20-40 hours a week at a cafe in order to help pay for my education, often coming back to my apartment at 10 pm after the closing shift, and getting started on homework. Learning to balance this with my coursework was difficult yet rewarding, and I became a much more efficient, organized, and goal-oriented individual in the process. I learned to create a schedule for myself every morning, detailing my intentions and objectives for the day and outlining what needed to be completed, hour by hour. I took this method with me into my next year of college, when I became a Resident Assistant. I was initially daunted by the idea of being responsible for such a large number of students, but I have been able to create many amazing connections with a plethora of incredible and diverse individuals in the process. I developed skills that allowed me to feel more confident about my career readiness, such as critically analyzing situations and making logical and objective decisions. 

This semester, I am working two jobs and taking on 18 credits, and my college experience is no less remarkable or exhilarating. As a first generation college student in the United States, I did not think this was possible. My time at UConn thus far has proved me very wrong. College is what one will make of it, and there are always options – regardless of how adverse a situation may seem. I feel prepared to promote myself as a student looking for prospective career and internship opportunities. 

Some advice for first generation college students and all students in general: 

Use Your Resources

Filling out college and FASFA applications can be a daunting task when neither of your parents attended college in the United States. Know that you have resources available to aid you in this process. Reach out to the Office of Student Financial Aid Services for resources. Contact your advisor and visit the FASFA aid page to follow their guide.

Minimizing the Costs of Your Education 

There are several options available for students looking to lower the cost of attending school. Many universities offer work study and research grants for all student levels – apply for these! Additionally, students can look up scholarship options for their specific school and will most often find a list of 10-50 scholarships available. Becoming a Resident Assistant or applying for an ROTC program (if you are interested in taking that route) are options to lower the cost of your education. 

Ensure Your Own Success 

Your college success is largely dependent on your own dedication and commitment to becoming a well-rounded student. Avoid waiting until senior year to apply for internships. Do your research early with the help of the Center for Career Development so that you are prepared for any opportunities that come your way. 

Visit the Online Guide for First Generation College Students for more information on how schools support first generation students, how to overcome challenges, scholarships specific to first generation students, and more.

By Katarzyna Paszek
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