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Young female student I was not your typical college student; my path was not laid out for me so I had to figure it out as I went along.  As a first generation college student, I was the first one in my entire family to go to college.  I didn’t even know what the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) was because I didn’t discuss college with any high school counselors.  My parents didn’t realize they had to save for my education, or help me find a school to attend, or even encourage me to go to college in the first place.  Of course, that’s not their fault.  They did the best they could with what they had.  But it did teach me a valuable lesson about college planning with my own teenage daughter, and how my husband and I need to find a good balance between our potential assistance, and her self-sufficiency.

Something was Missing

I remember watching some of my friends leave for college in the summer of 1990.  I was working full-time at a clothing store and was feeling like something was missing.  I decided that I would try to find another job that offered tuition assistance so I could not only save for college, but get reimbursed for it after I completed classes.  Fast-forward three years, and I decided to start part-time at a community college in Iowa while maintaining my full-time job status, AND working part-time at an additional job.  That was not easy!  There were many nights I just came home and fell into bed, and did my homework during my lunch hour the next day.  Looking back on it, I must’ve had some tenacity to keep up with that schedule for five years.

The College Years

During my time at the community college, I must’ve changed my major about four times; I started out with journalism (I was yearbook editor in high school), then changed to paralegal studies (I wanted to be a lawyer), then changed to business management, then finally ended up pursuing Human Resource Management in an “accelerated” program in Nebraska after I received my associates degree at the community college.  While I was happy that I had at last made a decision and stuck with it, the accelerated program was a huge challenge.  It condensed a typical full-time 2-year course of study (working toward a bachelor’s degree – it would’ve taken me another 5 years going part-time) into 18 months of part-time study; but that 18-month curriculum was based on a full-time schedule.  This program seemed perfect for me, because I was at a point where I wanted to get my degree and start focusing on an actual career.  I moved back home with my parents for 18 months so I could quit my part-time job and spend any extra time I had on completing this program.  I took out student loans to cover any extra costs that my full-time employer’s tuition reimbursement plan didn’t cover.

Crooked Road

Clearly my journey to college wasn’t a smooth one; it took many twists and turns before I had a straight path ahead of me.  And I can’t deny that if I would’ve done things a bit differently during my senior year of high school, my journey would have been easier; i.e., fill out the FAFSA to get federal financial aid (first and foremost), talk to my school counselors and ask for their insight, and be more open with my parents about my choices.

Gradation Day!

BUT I MADE IT.  I graduated in January 2000 with a BA in Human Resource Management and a 3.4 GPA.  Graduation day was great, but I remember my last day of classes in early December 1999, and how it felt to know that I not only completed the program…but that I actually did quite well.  I was proud, excited, and ready to take on the world.

Lessons Learned

Keep in mind that anyone’s college journey can lead to success, no matter the path.  Here are some things I learned while taking my own college journey.

It’s okay to:

  • Not have a plan on the day of high school graduation.
  • Be a first-generation college student.
  • Not be ready to move away to attend college.
  • Find a job and save money if parents aren’t able to pay for college.
  • Do things differently than everyone else.
  • Take your time.
  • Take a different approach if the original plan isn’t working.
  • Ask for help when feeling overwhelmed.

IT’S OK to make the best of it, and take a non-traditional approach to higher education: develop a plan, stay focused, and always keep the end goal in mind and within reach.  Good luck on your college journey!