If your son or daughter is the first-generation from your family to go to college, then they (and you) will be forging new territory. But don’t be alarmed or shy about “college” because you and your student can learn together, and as a first-gen myself, I can assure you that your student will love your interest and support. Here are a few ways you can be involved and helpful as your student enters this new territory:
Your student would like your support
Know this and don’t be shy about being supportive and encouraging. Your student is nervous about going to a new place and learning a whole new system, so he or she will really be grateful that you show some interest and are at least willing to listen.
Don’t be afraid to be interested
It’s ok to ask questions and get to know the college environment, after all, your student will be living there and you as a concerned parent likely want to know what that environment is like. Often first-gen parents can feel shy about asking questions, but I don’t think you should. Your student doesn’t know anything about going to college–like most college freshmen!–and as your student learns they can share with you. The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to ask even better questions and have deeper conversations.
Go to campus events
Your son or daughter will really appreciate it if you come to campus to support them when they have performances or exhibitions of any sort. Many first-gen parents can feel shy about going on campus, but again, you don’t need to. Campuses are filled with thousands of people and no one will know that you didn’t go to college yourself and certainly, no one will ask, so you are very safe to attend any and all events. All parents are welcome!
Your student will take 3-5 classes per term
This is different from high school where students take 5-7 classes at a time. In college, your student is taking 3 classes per quarter or 5 classes per semester–on average. These classes may meet for an hour five days a week or for two hours once a week, it really depends. Your student will, therefore, have large blocks of time during each day. During this time your student will need to study, so talk to them about time management because kids are often not prepared for this new schedule. It takes some getting used to!
Encourage your student to get involved on campus
There are hundreds of clubs and organizations on campus for literally every possible hobby, passion, and interest. It is critical that your student joins at least two of these groups so that they make friends and feel connected to their new school (this conquers homesickness, which is VERY normal). Usually, campuses hold club fairs at the beginning of the year so that students can see all of the clubs they can join. Your student’s RA can tell them when the fair is and you should encourage them to go.
Encourage your student to get academic support
There are free writing and math tutoring on every campus, in the form of labs staffed by older students getting graduate degrees. Your student should locate these on campus and make good use of them. Free, unlimited academic support is literally awesome. Also, every professor has “office hours” where they are in their office and students can drop in to discuss a paper, a quiz or a project–anything really. I always tell kids to go at least twice to every professor’s office hours, and more if needed. I wouldn’t go so much that you take time away from other students, but do get the help you need. Office hours are great!
Encourage your student to learn to network, and get an internship
Networking is a skill that your student will need to learn to do to advance in the career world. Networking means that you get to know people and that someday when you have a question, you can ask them for advice. If they don’t know the answer they will point you to someone who does. Networking is how people get jobs. It’s all about connections. Teach your student that this is important and that you only get one chance to make a good impression. Also, this generation needs to do internships during the summer! Gone are the days of lounging by the pool and babysitting galore. Kids need to get out there into the real world and ask for internships, for REAL job experience. Only with REAL job experience on your resume will you get hired after college.
An easy way to get real experience is for your student to ask professionals if he/she can interview them for 15-30 minutes over coffee, asking them how they got started in their career, what they majored in, what they like about the job, etc. If that goes well, the student can ask if ever a job shadow for half a day or a day might be possible. (A job shadow is where you follow someone around their job for a day, learning what they do as a lawyer, engineer, etc). Then, if the job shadow goes well, the student can ask about summer internships. Interns are sometimes paid, sometimes not, but the experience leads to future jobs and greater opportunities.
Your student has a Resident Advisor on their dorm floor who is there to help them
The RA on each floor is your student’s go-to person for any questions. Encourage your student to get to know this person and go to them for help or guidance. RAs are very well-trained and are very happy to have their jobs because they live and eat in the dorms for free (it’s a GREAT way to help pay your way through college).
Talk to your student about their major, interests, skills and employability
Discuss with your student what jobs might be interesting to them, what their natural skills are, and what jobs are actually hiring. Then discuss their possible majors. The student can also visit the career center on campus to get guidance on this. Parents do not visit campus offices, except the office of Financial Aid, so your student will go alone, but you can discuss things together and kids really benefit from brainstorming.
Ask your student how grades are going and let them know you’re proud of them
As college goes along, be sure to ask your student about their grades. Without good grades your student will have trouble getting hired, and will have trouble getting into graduate school if they decide to do advanced studies later. Having a parent show interest in your grades is a good motivator for doing your best.
This might go without saying, but I think you should maintain the same level of communication you had with your student during high school, or build an even better one. I would not let your student roll their eyes at you for trying to care or, worse, act like you couldn’t possibly understand their new world. That’s not true, and you’re still the parent.
You can be interested and supportive and your student can be respectful of you–that doesn’t have to change just because someone goes to college! Going to college broadens our horizons but it should not make us look down on where we’ve come from. Where we’ve come from is an important part of who we are and where we will go and what we will do. You can help your student value their unique background while being proud of their bright future. Both things can exist in the same person!