Campus Philly’s First-Gen Journal: Stories, Advice, and Resources from First-Generation Students

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Being a first-generation student comes with new territory, experiences, challenges—and a unique story. We had the chance to chat with four first-generation college students and recent grads about their experience as a first-gen college student in the Greater Philadelphia region!

Below, you’ll find their “journal entries” about navigating college applications, joining clubs and the right programs, and other advice on how you can better prepare for college as a first-gen student.

Throughout this Journal, you’ll read entries from:
Sandy Ly: A Senior at Temple University
Shelby Kaminsky: A Recent Grad from West Chester University
Brandon Cisneros: A Recent Grad at Drexel University
Ryan Curran: A Recent Grad from Rowan University
Michael Cabrera: A Student at Neumann University

Entry #1: Sandy Ly

Sandy Ly (she/her) is a senior at Temple University majoring in Health Information Management. She leads Temple’s student organization HIMSA (the Health Information Management Student Association) as president. Previously, she interned with the office of Councilmember Helen Gym, as well as the Broadstreet Covid-19 Data Project and Universal Health Services. Outside of academics, she frequents museums with friends, roller skates (badly), reads YA fiction, and overuses parentheses.

Are you from the Philadelphia area, or did you move here? What connects you to the Philly area? Tell us your “Philly story.”

I’m Hmong and Cambodian, but I’ve lived in Philly my whole life. My parents raised me and my five siblings in a little rowhome where cucumber and bitter melon vines creep up our homemade trellises during the summer. In the autumns following, I went to local schools: a small Catholic school called Incarnation then onwards to Central (276!) and Fels (‘18!) for high school. I’m pretty much a summation of the city’s many school systems (private, magnet, and neighborhood respectively) which has exposed me to our many different communities and cultures.

How did you balance going to school, having a social life, and working towards a career while in college?

Having an understanding support system definitely helps. I’m lucky to have classmates who’ve become close friends and my long-time best friends who’ve become essential in my academic-social life juggling act. Our lunchtime study sessions, life-update video calls, and mini city adventures keep me balanced. I’m also fortunate to have former teachers, professors, and supervisors check in on me to share advice on advancing my professional career. 

Beyond the people aspect, I do a lot of note-taking. I use Google Calendar religiously when planning events, and I’ll jot down tasks in my bullet journal. This helps me to know which responsibilities I can or cannot take on. I know we preach productivity and being “on the grind,” but know your limits. Take on opportunities, but don’t be afraid to turn something down to take care of your mental health.

As a first-gen student, how was the application process while applying to schools? 

Honestly, it was tough. I went to Fels for my last two years of high school and while I absolutely loved it there, neighborhood schools in Philadelphia are struggling. They serve a primarily POC, immigrant, and low-income student population who may need extra guidance through the application process. At other schools, college might seem like the obvious next step, but here, it might not even be an option considered. Honestly, the only reason why I had a headstart on the application process was because one of my internship teachers brought me pamphlets from other schools about FAFSA, PHEAA, and the Common App, and really encouraged me throughout the application season.

Initially, I was rejected from Temple. So, like a majority of our graduating class, I went to the Community College of Philadelphia. This was a serendipitous redirection because I was given the opportunity to explore different majors, make some of my closest friends, and attain my first internship, all with no financial burden. I got my Associate’s degree and then transferred to Temple. This is all to say: finish your applications early, but take any possible rejection as an opportunity. (And don’t sleep on community colleges!)

Were you a part of any first-generation programs or clubs? What was your experience like? 

I’m a member of Temple First and I highly encourage joining! From the get-go, everyone is more than willing to share their knowledge and background in such a friendly way. We discuss networking, career paths, campus resources, and mental health informally but also in workshops. Our chapter’s founders were actually the first people to talk to me about my major and financial aid when I transferred from community college. 

As a first-gen student though, I think joining any club is an amazing experience. College can be a lonely and confusing stage in life. But because of that, it’s important to put yourself out there and seek community. There’s this quote that I love/hate which goes, “If we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” (I only hate it because it’s right.) It’s scary to let others see who you are, but taking initiative to meet people in organizations is one way to find like-minded people who can help guide you. In my case, the previous HIMSA president made our organization feel so accessible. She taught me everything I know about leadership and career advancement, and along the way, became an invaluable friend.

What is some advice you would share with first-generation students who are just beginning their college journey? 

First of all, please know that you deserve to be here. You worked through so many obstacles to get in, probably cried along the way, and really beat the odds. As a Hmong and Cambodian woman, I know it’s really a blessing for me to get this far. Whether you’re here for the long run, if you’re just trying college out, or if you have gaps in your educational path, I’m so proud of you for taking the first steps of this journey. It’s not easy, but getting here wasn’t easy either—and you still made it. Take a moment to acknowledge that and keep that momentum going.

Second, learn about yourself while you’re here. While there’s a lot of external pressure to fit into different expectations, you have to do what is best for you because you’ll burn out otherwise. There’s so much of this world to explore and so much more yet to come. You learn what you like by getting experience and by being honest with yourself about your strengths/weaknesses. This self-discovery takes time so be patient with yourself. 

Third, whatever you choose to do, work hard. The effort you put into your work will attract the right people even when you can’t see the light in yourself. You are doing amazing—even in moments of confusion, self-doubt, and failure. We are moving against the current and yet we are still making progress. We are clashing with what we want, with what our parents may want, and with what the world expects from us. Navigating through rough waves is part of the journey, but you’ll make it to land. 

All my best,
Sandy

Entry #2: Shelby Kaminsky 

My name is Shelby Kaminsky. I graduated from West Chester University in May 2020. I am from NE Philadelphia, born & raised. I graduated magna cum laude with my bachelor’s in English with a minor in Deaf studies. I am also a first-generation college student. Those are the facts of my life. Now here’s my story. 

First off: Tell us your “Philly story.”

Being a low-income, first-generation college student definitely has its difficulties. I didn’t even think I would go to college. I saw its price tag and thought I couldn’t swing it. My Mom went to Drexel for two years, but was unable to finish due to financial difficulties; my Dad didn’t even graduate high school. My grades weren’t too good in high school, either, however, once I took a college prep class I learned being in the low-income household could be used to my advantage. I learned about scholarships and financial aid, and I applied to over 100 scholarships my senior year of high school. Every night I would apply after school and work. It was grueling, but I was able to secure five good, renewable scholarships to secure my future. I chose to attend West Chester University because it was affordable and I loved the campus. With all those factors I was able to attend college and live on campus all four years. 

What is one piece of advice you would share with first-generation students who are just beginning their college journey?

My biggest piece of advice I can offer is to use all the resources available to you. That’s the most important thing for first-gen and low-income students. I made sure to apply to many scholarships, I completed a free college prep program, I worked, I volunteered… I did anything I could to make connections so I could utilize my resources. I did that all through college, too.

When you pay tuition you also pay a bunch of little fees that cover the costs of some “free” services on campus. I used all those services to my advantage, like the library, the writing center, the food pantry, computer labs, therapy center, and especially the career center. These resources are here for you—make sure you use them!

I benefited big time from using the career center. I made sure my resume was poppin’. I did mock interviews, I asked questions, I made it known I was looking for a paid internship (because unpaid internships are impossible for me and other first-gen students). I went to the career fair, and any and all networking events. This was the biggest factor in helping me secure a job post-grad during the beginning of the pandemic. Now I work in finance, funny enough, as a Disclosure Analyst for a mortgage lending company. I had no idea, as a first-gen college student, that I would graduate with honors during the height of the largest public health event in decades, and end up working in the complete opposite industry that I planned on. It just goes to show you that you have to be open and flexible to the possibility of change.

My advice: Utilize your resources & connections and be flexible and open to change. If you manage to at least do those few things, then the world is your oyster.

If you have any questions about applying for scholarships, resume writing, or anything about college, please don’t hesitate to email me at [email protected] I am happy to help any fellow students. Also, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Utilize your resources! (Me!)

Best,
Shelby

Entry #3: Brandon Cisneros 

Brandon Cisneros is a current student at Drexel University working towards a Bachelor of Business Administration – BSBA focused in Marketing with a minor in Spanish. He founded the first Prospanica university chapter in the Northeastern region in October 2019 at Drexel University, which recently won the 2020 University Chapter of the Year award. Other organizations he is involved in include Latinos for a United Campus, LeBow BRIDGE, Drexel Student Ambassadors, Drexel University Bienvenidos (Hispanic/Latino Colleague Resource Group), Drexel HOLA (Latinx Alumni Affinity Group), the LeBow Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Action Committee, the Drexel Anti-Racism Task Force, and many more!

What connects you to the Philly area?

I’m originally from Perth Amboy, NJ. I moved here because I fell in love with the city when I visited for the first time back in 2016. I was visiting UPenn & Drexel and was starting to narrow down my top college choices. I felt very comfortable and it automatically felt like my second home.

How did you balance going to school, having a social life, and working towards a career while in college?

It was tough at first. I was very shy and introverted when I started at Drexel. I got involved with cultural on-campus groups like Latinos for a United Campus (LUC) and became connected with the local Latinx population at Drexel and even in Philly. Getting involved helped me get out of my comfort zone and I became extroverted.

As a first-gen student, how was your application process while applying to schools?

For most schools, their application process was encouraging for first-generation students. I was accepted to all of the schools I applied for, except for one, and that was the single ivy league school I applied for. Applying to an ivy league was much more difficult and selective.

Tell us more about your involvement in on-campus activities.

Yes! At Drexel, we have a department called the Center for Inclusive Education & Scholarship which provides us with support and resources as first-gen students. I really appreciated that Drexel had something like this. I am given many scholarship opportunities and get to attend networking events where I can meet other first-gen students.

What is one piece of advice you would share with first-generation students who are just beginning their college journey?

Stay organized and open-minded. There are so many opportunities for first-gen students and people who want to support you to be as successful as you can be!

Good luck!
Brandon

Entry #4: Ryan Curran

I’m Ryan Curran and I’m a 23-year-old healthcare digital marketing professional with a background in content strategy, social media marketing, and advertising. I graduated from Rowan University with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing in 2020 and currently work at Digitas Health in Philadelphia.

Are you from the Philadelphia area?

I grew up a half hour away from Philly, so growing up I would constantly take weekend trips to the city. I always found myself wandering around Philly with family and friends. I went to college in New Jersey at Rowan University, so I didn’t actually move to Philly until after graduation, but Philly has always been a quick trip away, so it felt like a 2nd home growing up so close to the city.

Tell us how you balance your social and work life.

I make sure to stay extremely organized; it wasn’t always easy in college, but having a good planner can be life changing. I always made sure to focus on anything school- and career-related during the week and save my weekends for anything social. I think it’s important to have a balance, so you don’t get overly stressed. Trust me, you’ll figure it out eventually.

As a first-gen student, can you share a little more about the application process?

At first, I found it a bit difficult because I was doing everything alone, but after I submitted my first application the other applications were easy to navigate. My first college application was actually incomplete—I didn’t realize until the school called me. It was kind of embarrassing, but hey, it was my first time applying to college. The application process can be intimidating but it’s important to keep in mind that most people are probably feeling the same way.

What is one piece of advice you would share with first-generation students who are just beginning their college journey?

My main piece of advice is to ask questions. Yes, you are at a slight disadvantage to other people who aren’t first-gen, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. If I think back to my first semester at college, I can remember multiple instances where I wish I had asked a professor or advisor a question before making a decision or just continuing to be confused about something. It’s important to stay focused and have fun. College will fly by… make the most of it!

You got this,
Ryan

Entry #5: Michael Cabrera

Hi! I’m Michael Cabrera, and I’m from Deptford, New Jersey. I am a junior at Neumann University and I am also on the men’s lacrosse team. I am currently working to get my BA in Communications and Digital Media, with a minor in Spanish. I hope my story can help someone out there realize that patience is key! 

Are you from the Philadelphia area, or did you move here? What connects you to the Philly area? Tell us your “Philly story.” 

Growing up in South Jersey has given me the opportunity to travel to Philly almost every weekend. Being right across the bridge has really helped me to form a connection with the city that I don’t think I’d have anywhere else. I have fond memories of my mom and I going to Phillies games. Even more recently my friends and I have gone out to Eagles games and have found new things to do in the city. 

How do you balance going to school, having a social life, and working towards a career while in college?  

Honestly, trying to balance things can be very difficult. Especially taking into consideration that I play lacrosse for my school; at times it can be just a little too overwhelming. Luckily, I have a good support system in my friends and family. They have always been there for me in moments of doubt. Another key thing that has helped me is organizing things down to the hour, it just helps put my mind at ease and I can clearly know when everything is due. Also, just knowing that it’s okay to take a break and enjoy the little things benefits me the most when I was struggling mentally.  

As a first-gen student, what was the application process like for you?  

Applying to schools wasn’t that difficult for me because I had guidance counselors in my high school that helped with that process. I do also have a sister, so I think having her there really helped bridge the gap, especially when it came to explaining different things in the process.  

Are you a part of any first-generation programs or clubs? What has your experience been like? 

Unfortunately, due to my schedule being packed between school and lacrosse, I don’t really have that much free time for other activities. However, in my upper-level Spanish courses, we were the first ones to host our own radio show that counted as a grade in the course. So, just having that experience and getting to see how the process for a radio show works is something that I will always appreciate and have a great deal of respect for.  

What is some advice you would share with first-generation students who are just beginning their college journey?  

I’d say that always being curious and asking questions will get you far. Personally, my biggest piece of advice would be to communicate with either your professors or managers in a timely manner because they will appreciate it in the long run. Plus, it’ll just make things easier for you. Also, I’d say to let them know if anything is going on personally that you need support with because nine times out of ten, they will be more than willing to help in any way they can.  

And one more thing: Staying hungry and reminding myself why I’m in school has been a big motivator for me in times when I find myself struggling. You’re here for a better future for yourself and your family, and it’s important not to lose that sight. To me, it’s important to put one’s schooling first just because it is what we are here for. 

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Are you a first-generation student in the Philadelphia region, and have a story that you want to share with us? Apply to be a Campus Philly Brand Ambassador! We’re always looking to amplify more awesome stories, and we hope to fill this Journal with even more entries this year. Apply today—we can’t wait to hear from you!

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