I don’t exactly remember my first day of college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but I remember having feelings of doubt, isolation and fear.
I remember feeling as if I didn’t belong, and that I wasn’t smart enough, cool enough or even young enough.
I was an older student and due to some bad decisions I made in life, I found myself on campus, away from Chicago at the age of 24.
I am writing this to encourage a few students who might be wrestling with the same insecurities.
My little cousin posted a status on Facebook that took me back to that lonely place: “Wishing that I had a bigger support system with college and everything else.”
People often say that getting a degree is one of the best ways to enhance your future. They tell you that when you are done you will get a good job.
They rarely talk about the process.
I can tell you the process isn’t easy, especially if you are a non-traditional student (single parent, older, with a family, the first in your family to attend college, transferring from a community college, coming from an environment that does not make education a priority or having little support).
The most important advice I can give if you fit the category of a non-traditional student is to avoid isolation.
Isolating yourself is the worst thing you can do. This feeds the doubts that you already have. You may begin to talk yourself into thinking the situation is worse than it is. This can and does usually occur during freshman year or first-year transfer.
You find yourself getting homesick. You miss all of the negatives and positives about home. You sometimes forget why you even left in the first place. You may even trivialize the fact that you accomplished this goal.
Find a church or another faith-based organization.
Get out of your little space and make friends.
You may not even get along with your roommate, but be civil. This is one of the first lessons of networking.
There will be cliques divided by high school, geographic location, race, interest, fraternities and sororities.
Get involved, but choose wisely.
Your peers are not the only source of support.
Get to know your teachers.
Some of the most influential people in my life have been my former teachers. They have offered and continue to offer some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
They knew nothing about my past mistakes. They had nothing to judge me on, but my character and the quality of work I produced. Often times, their words were the most encouraging and comforting I had heard all semester. Plus, they have all sat in the seat you are sitting in.
I often perform a Google search on my teachers. I want to know who they are, why they are teaching and if they can help me get to where I am going.
Do not underestimate this potential well of resources.
And finally, do not listen to the advice of people who have not been where you are going.
You will have to use some discernment with this one, but I am mostly referring to the people who have never committed themselves to a purpose. Do not listen to those who have quit on their ambitions because it got too hard; those people who have made excuses as to why they have never graduated; those who question why you are even doing what you are doing.
You have to believe with all of your heart, mind and soul that you are capable of finishing; that quitting is not an option; that setbacks are often gateways to doing things smarter. You have to believe that you deserve to be where you are because some other deserving student could be in your place.
And if all else fails, go talk to a counselor. That is why they are there. There is no shame in admitting that things are getting too hard, but don’t wait until you are getting kicked out of school as I did.
I did not graduate from the University of Illinois.
I could have given up.
I took this same advice I am offering you and graduated from Columbia College Chicago, and now, at 34, I am in my last year of a master’s program at Loyola University Chicago.
This period of your life will fly by. You will look up and one day it will be over.
Consider what you want your legacy to be.
Good luck. The best part of your life is yet to come.
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