“If I Knew Then What I Know Now….” for First-Generation College Students: A short guide on how to make your own destiny

I was the first in my immediate family to earn a Bachelors then the only to earn a Masters. My mother often said the above.

A college I taught at in Oman – having a Masters is important

Undergraduate school was a lesson in understanding social class realities and how to maneuver within a bureaucracy. Graduate school included a program of manipulating and being manipulated. I envisioned a doctorate as more intense, dangerous, as well as humiliating. I skipped it. But the Masters opened doors I naively thought the Bachelors would have but didn’t.

In brief, lower/working class people need to learn to be overly polite and plan activities in advance. Remember, wealthier people seem to breathe a foreign air with unwritten codes of conduct. Your childhood skill set may hinder much of your potential successes.  

Other than that, the following knowledge may make your life easier.  

Lower/ working class or disadvantaged students are valuable assets at universities, especially at Ivy League schools.  These students usually:

  1. Most every first-year college student is scared, no matter how they look or act.

  2. You are invaluable to the college, more so than rich students. Rich people love the status quo and do not want it to change; poor people are catalysts for change. That’s why the Sixties were so energetic: to avoid Vietnam, many lower/working-class young men enrolled in college. Their presence helped force others to challenge authority and revolutionize American culture.

  3. It’s okay to be poor. It’s not your fault. Nor is it your classmates’ fault for being rich. Listen to others plan ski trips, foreign holidays or lavish shopping expeditions. Listen and learn. Ask questions. Stay in the conversation. When asked to join such expensive jaunts, say, “Sorry, I can’t do that,” and smile.  Do not let jealousy show or overrule other emotions.

  4. You are exotic and dangerous. Put richer people at their ease by asking questions and get them to do the talking. Do not reveal much of your background with new people. Asking questions is nearly always a guaranteed way to build relationships because most everyone likes to talk about themselves. Being a good listener is an asset in life.

  5. Asking for any kind of help is not begging. It is being intelligent. It is learning how to make connections and resolve problems. Many colleges offer career and life counseling.

  6. You are vulnerable. Many poor, young people have not been protected from the evils of their culture because of the financial stress upon their parents. If a parent is constantly worried about money, they often lack the time, energy or knowledge to teach complicated self-regulating and empowering emotions and social skills to their children. Learn the power of saying ‘No,’ when peers extend invitations to risky ventures. Research possibilities before rushing into unknown territories.  

  7. The temptations of another culture (wealth) beckon. Being vulnerable means others may see you as someone who can easily be used, abused, or exploited. It is important to protect yourself.  A strong, self-assured self-identity may help. Remember you will be the first one in your family to earn a college degree. That is power!

Develop Daily Habits

Going to college is how you create your own destiny (end of a road in Oman)
  1. Basic social skills go beyond please and thank you. Consult a few books about etiquette. One point of view is not enough. Watch others, remembering the wisdom in the cliché ‘actions speak louder than words.’ Good manners are cultural rules to ensure safe social interactions.

  2. Learn to balance emotions with reason. This is the true mark of an educated person.

  3. Do not raise your voice or use foul language. This shows weakness, in discussions or arguments – in or outside the classroom. That is the first sign that you have lost the argument.

  4. Follow the stock market by knowing the DOW, NASDAQ or others. Know the price of oil, gold, and corn. Know the currency exchange rate between the US Dollar and the Euro/Yen and other currencies. This information keeps you aware of world events.

  5. Join one social activity or club, as if it were a second job. It is. It is not a waste of time because it leads to invaluable experience and networking opportunities.

  6. Financial skills:  learn how to budget and invest. Avoid debt as much as possible. It will take years to unlearn bad financial habits, emotions, and attitudes. Be patient with yourself. This does not mean to obsess over money. Save something, even if just a few dollars each week. Savings always produce a sense of safety.

  7. Health – learn to cook for yourself. Use spices to jazz up vegetables. Avoid sugar, soda, and junk food. Processed food = slow death. Invite friends over for ‘theme buffet’ meals where everyone brings one special dish, in place of not being able to afford expensive restaurants.
    Use the health facilities at the college, daily if possible. Exercise keeps a person healthy and happy. It is a better stress reliever than sugar, alcohol or drugs. When emotions and one’s entire way of thinking is constantly being challenged, it’s important to keep the body healthy. Emotions and stress produce biochemicals that endanger the body’s balance. This can cause more damage than low grades.

  8. Do not get drunk nor use drugs with new people. Alcohol and drugs are dangerous for everyone but more so with strangers. Do not give into peer pressure. Do not show disdain, but simply say, “Doesn’t interest me.” Unfortunately, colleges often provide students with budding alcoholism.

  9. Internships. Learn everything you can about them. Research for summer ones you may possibly do. Be creative. Approach professors or the internship organization and state your case to seek financial aid.

  10. Try for a year abroad if scholarships pay for it, or even a semester abroad. Experiencing a foreign culture stretches a person’s outlook on life. Traveling as a college student is often inexpensive, such as working holidays. Youth hostels and college dormitories are cheaper than hotels. Even if you think it is too expensive, research it.

  11. Plan activities for every school holiday, especially summer vacations. Planning is not easy when poor, so it’s a valuable life skill.

  12. Learn what a dalliance is since many young people often see romantic relationships as that. Don’t kid yourself that, ‘He or she is really different’. The frontal lobe for decision-making matures around the age of 21 or 22.  If I had known that, I may have kept my virginity longer than 19 and avoided many heartaches.

  13. Shower daily, keep clothes and rooms clean and neat, make your bed every morning.

  14. Learn to give yourself a manicure – both men and women.  Hands are an important social signature that provides others with much data. Manicured hands show that the person takes care of themselves and thus should be respected.

  15. Do not get sexually-romantically involved with a person until your third year. For women: men really love it when you say No.  For men, self-control is invaluable. Everyone should avoid alcohol which lessens the ability to make good decisions. Too many people are ruled by their hormones. It is impossible to ignore hormonal demands. By exercising, eating well, and avoiding drugs and alcohol, you may exert your reasoning powers over these primal emotions.

  16. Do not believe sex = love. It does not.

  17. Looking for a marriage partner at college may be a wise decision. It’s one of the rare times you will be surrounded by people your own age with similar intellectual abilities. (Old-fashioned courtship allowed a long period of time before a couple married. Courtship – not modern dating – taught intimacy without the consequences of the sexual act, while providing time for a deep understanding of the other person.)

  18. Do not totally identify and socialize with other First Generation students. This may cause you to feed your self-identity as poor. A better self-identity is being an educated person.

  19. Smile, even when you feel gloomy. Smiling is an assertion of personal inner happiness and power. The muscles involved in smiling naturally trigger the brain – and other people – to be happy.

  20. When buying anything, notice the quality even if you cannot, yet, purchase high-quality anything. Poverty limits choices, but it is worse to not know the difference between low and high quality products.

  21. Learn to appreciate international art and culture. Art is an international culture in its own right. An awareness of the finest art from around the world actually elevates a person’s thinking.

  22. This is a painful suggestion: Consider graduate school, no matter how much it costs. A Masters degree opens doors not even noticed before and doors that cannot even be imagined.

  23. Start a First Generation to Graduate Alumni Club, including older people like myself.
Writing in a hotel in Bali, Indonesia – a dream I didn’t know I had

Negative Results of a College Education

  1. You may not feel comfortable with all your relatives. Nor will you fit in with the middle-class world. Eventually, I became comfortable with people like myself who traveled or were artists.

  2. Family members’ envy and jealousy may cloud communication. They, and you, may not be able to detect or articulate the jealousies or misunderstandings.

  3. Unfortunately, you will not turn into a rich person once you graduate from college. Good jobs are about money, relatives, networking, and world conditions (wars, depressions, climate change, etc.). Give yourself a year or two to negotiate the real world with your degree.

  4. Social and economic classes are real around the world. Wealthy, poor and educated people, as groups, have more in common with each other than people in their own birthplaces. A wealthy European will be more comfortable with a wealthy Asian than with a poor European.

  5. Social class involves much more than just money: emotions, thinking, social skills, attitudes, values, planning, and networking.

  6. One friend, familiar with super-rich people, informed me that some of them are so out of touch with reality, as well as their own and others’ inner reality, they are impossible to deal with on any level and are best avoided. The problems they may cause are unpredictable and difficult to overcome.

  7. One of the best advice I learned was how to identify a problem with another person: Is it me, something within me that I have control over?  Or it is something in the other person – that I cannot control or influence?
Much of life is a surprise

In conclusion, college will change you. It will give you more skills for survival. It will consume four or more of the best years of your life. The decisions you make during your 20s is how you make your own destiny.

From the age of 30 on, you have already set your destiny. May it always balance between emotions and reason, love and knowledge.


An educated person is a Winged Victory
(Chicago copy of the Louvre’s Winged Victory)

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