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Vinlisa Khoeum
Vinlisa Khoeum

My eyes started to glaze over as I read the seemingly endless questions contained in the 10-page federal financial aid application. I had to complete the form so I could get the money I needed to attend college. Some of my high school classmates had parents, older siblings or friends who’d gone to college to turn to for help.

Me? I was on my own. This was last summer as I started the process of getting ready to enroll as a first-year student. I’d later find myself away from home for the first time as a first-generation college student at Loyola University New Orleans. To say I had a lot on my plate is an understatement.

I grew up in Plaquemines Parish on the Gulf Coast, about a 90-minute drive from New Orleans. The town is mostly made up of commercial fishermen who work on the coastline. My parents are originally from Cambodia. My dad is a commercial fisherman and oysterman during the cold season, and my mom is an oyster shucker.

It’s a rural community with a lot of seasonal workers and small schools. Many of the teachers I had growing up came to the district for a year or two and then moved on. Forming a relationship with them was a challenge. As the first in my family to attend college, the journey to a university in New Orleans was a huge step.

Related: First-gen students at elite colleges go from lonely and overwhelmed to empowered and provoking change

While the school was not geographically that far from home, it was daunting to know I’d be separated from family. I knew I would miss the comfort and familiarity of home while I was away at school. As I later learned, my experience is far from unique. Nationally, 34 percent of undergraduates are also the first in their families to attend college. Students like us are much less likely to end up on the graduation stage than our peers whose parents finished college.

Fortunately, my college understands these challenges, and my first year has been a great success. I’ve made friends, become more independent and succeeded academically. Here are three key insights I’ve learned that I would like to share.

Develop a clear career and personal focus. Before I enrolled, I was already excited about what the university has to offer. I’ve always been passionate about the arts — especially music. I am a huge hip-hop and R&B fan, and in high school I was president of our arts club and part of a program for those who are talented in the visual arts. My high school didn’t have much in the way of arts and music programs.

Related: New supports for first-gen students: Helpful or a drop in the bucket?

So I was truly excited by the level of music education available at my university. It’s the reason that I came to Loyola and it fits into my plans for after I graduate. Focusing on classes that I’m passionate about and that match my career goals has given me a source of motivation and drive.

Seek out mentorship and support from those around you. Faculty and staff are there to support you — and that’s something we as students must embrace. Before arriving on campus, I thought that spending extra time with students would be too much for busy faculty, but I’ve found that they are always willing to meet after class and during office hours or to set up time to answer questions.

“Sometimes, there is a stigma around asking for help when you feel deep down that the expectation is to try your best to accomplish things independently.”

Student success coaching is another resource I’ve used to work through the challenges that I’m experiencing. My coach helps me stay on track and get back on my feet whenever I’m feeling down or stuck. I can’t really go to my parents for advice on navigating higher education since they never went to college and have limited formal education. So it’s been great to have someone to talk and text with whenever I need guidance or a sounding board for my ideas. It has really helped me adjust to, and thrive in, college life.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: We must offer underprivileged students more than a meager ‘stay in school’

I chose Loyola because of its small, close-knit community, and this community has been a huge source of comfort. The people here are incredibly genuine and friendly, and they want to help you grow.

Make plans to achieve your goals. I made it my goal to graduate with a 4.0. Many of my peers thought I was crazy and said things like, “It’s college. Relax. It’s not high school anymore.” But I was determined to get my grades up to a 4.0 by the end of the semester. Working with faculty and my success coach to develop a plan to reach this goal, I put in place a process for finding specific times of the day to work and stay organized, and found a balance between academics and my social life. After a lot of sweat and hours in the library, I accomplished my goal and earned a 4.0.

In planning how to achieve my goal, it was helpful to know I had an unbiased perspective from someone who wants to see me succeed. My coach has always been very supportive of everything I’m going through, and I’m really grateful for that.

Related: Five things American colleges need to do to help black and Latino students

As a first-generation college student, I have seen that seeking out the right resources and advice is actually far wiser than trying to go it alone. I feel like it helped me find my strengths and build connections, not only to individuals but also to the school community as a whole.

The college experience is exciting but also challenging — especially if your parents, siblings and extended family haven’t gone through it. Sometimes, there is a stigma around asking for help when you feel deep down that the expectation is to try your best to accomplish things independently. I grew up in a family that prided itself on hard work and self-reliance. It’s been a surprising learning experience but rings true: Making the most of the resources around you is a sign of personal strength, not of weakness.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Vinlisa Khoeum is a student at Loyola University New Orleans and a native of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

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