Campus Columnist finalist - Dutch

Getting the best of both worlds as a first-generation student

At first, I felt like a stranger at the university because many things weren't evident to me. I had a hard time understanding how the university works and what the unwritten rules are. It's more a question of "know-how" than of "know-what": how one is supposed to participate in class, how one is supposed to conduct a presentation, and how one should ask questions. As time went by, it became easier and easier to understand these things. Finding out that there were other students and employees of the university going through a similar experience helped me as well.

Combining study and work
My parents did not go to university. I find it hard to explain the academic world to them. It helped to show them a study assignment and take them to campus but, at the end of the day, the real doubts and challenges arise when you start comparing yourself to others. I know we should never do that but sometimes it's impossible not to. I often had the feeling that the numeric assessment in our educational system opens a gap between students. It made me feel as though I should be comparing myself to others. Since I had to work alongside my studies, I couldn't dedicate as much time to studying as my fellow students did and, consequently, I got lower grades than they did. That was frustrating. Grades say a lot, but they can't say everything. 

Borrowing a book from a teacher
It's also really important to set your priorities. Studying should always be one of them, as well as talking to people who you think are doing good. These can be people with completely different backgrounds. Ask them questions. Personally, I used to wait too long to ask for help and I've learned how to do that by starting with small things, such as asking a teacher whether I could borrow their book. It was a win-win situation, as I immediately looked interested and engaged. Asking questions shows that you're proactive and eager to learn. You can keep trying to solve a puzzle in your head, but that doesn't lead you anywhere. So, take matters into your own hands: make use of everything the university offers to develop yourself aside from your studies and discover what inspires you.

Building bridges
Many first-generation students have strong work ethics, they're passionate and committed. You can achieve a lot with motivation, resilience and perseverance. First-generation students are usually good at thinking ahead and they build bridges between different worlds and groups. They are good at applying theory to reality, a valuable skill in science and elsewhere. Get the best out of both worlds. And, once you finally get the unwritten rules, you can change them. One day I caught myself giving a class. Whenever a student raised their hand, I waved back at them.