For many young Latinx people with immigrant parents in America, pursuing a higher education is one of the primary pathways we’re taught to believe will give us the opportunity to attain the “American Dream.” For some, our parents left their homelands in pursuit of it, in hopes of creating opportunities and a better future for us all.

With the many of us who are first-generation, low-income (FGLI) college students, a higher education can often feel out of reach or incredibly daunting as we begin to navigate it.

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With tuition increasing at disproportionate rates our parents could never afford to pay out of pocket, not having the equitable support to navigate the college application process, not really knowing how financial aid works, the long-term impacts of student loan debt, or the additional barriers that come with simply being FGLI, there are of course a few things I wish I would’ve known about college before attending. 

As a high school senior, I didn’t recognize the incredible potential I now possess. In large part, because I didn’t have the access to resources or support systems to guide me as a struggling youth experiencing poverty. Financial pressures coupled with various other forms of oppression, and having two counselors for the entirety of high school didn’t make it any easier.

When no one else in your family has graduated from college and your exposure to a higher education is incredibly limited, it’s up to you to learn how you want to operate in those spaces and make it work for you. Here are a few things I wish I would’ve known about college / FGLI hacks to help you make the most of it.

1. Building a network is perhaps the most critical takeaway

If there’s anything I’ve learned so far, building a “network” is definitely the most rewarding and game-changing aspect of college. Regardless of your profession, building relationships will take you further than the degree alone.

As the saying goes, “it’s not what you know, but who you know” and even though that’s only partially true, you’re better off having a network than not having one at all.

2. College is what you make it

In many ways, college requires you to be a self-starter, motivated by your passions, and in a constant pursuit of your goals. It’s up to you to determine how engaged you want to be and no one is going to tell you how to make it happen, but this process of professional, academic and self-discovery is part of the hype.

3. There’s more to life than college itself

The life you have outside of college is just as, if not more, important. College is the time of your life to become further aligned with yourself, to constantly grow and challenge yourself in ways you have yet to experience.

I can personally attest to this growth and encourage others to use this time to invest in yourself and realize your potential.

4. These institutions have more dinero than you think

These institutions can operate like businesses, profiting off of your student loan debt, but also have all the financial means to pay for you to attend if you demonstrate your “value” via grades and extracurriculars.

Remember, they sort of operate like companies with an intention to make major profits, all at your expense, so take all that you can from it. Take advantage of these higher educational spaces for all they have to offer and more. 

5. Anything for the A’s

Grades are like currency. For once, we’re viewed on the same level — through our grades — as students who are the children of elite, wealthy people who can pay their way through college.

By earning good grades, you’re also securing scholarship money, access to opportunities and prosperity in life after college. Basically, at all costs do your best to get the A, you’ll be glad you did.

6. College can be a scam, tbh (save yourself and your dinero)

Unless a degree in a particular field is absolutely necessary for the career you want to pursue, there is no point in going into debt for a degree you’re really not interested in obtaining. 

Attending a college or university is more about the status or prestige you get from being a part of an institution, in addition to all the access and networks that come with it.

7. Remember, these spaces weren’t created for people like us, but you belong

Regardless of the feelings of imposter syndrome that may arise, don’t forget that your presence in these rooms is necessary. Your lived experience as a Latinx youth is far more valuable than you can think, and it’s time to make it known.

If not for you, remember you’re showing up for those who haven’t made it in the room yet.

8. College isn’t for everyone

There’s a false narrative we’ve been told to think that everyone must attend college to attain the “American Dream,” but in many ways, not attending college is sometimes a more ideal option depending on your life path. Sometimes a trade school, being an entrepreneur or supporting a family business is a better fit for the life you want.

9. College is a choice

Going to college can be just a choice, but having the access to the options is a privilege. For some of us, that could be all the motivation we need to pursue it and being aware that it’s an opportunity is all we need to take it.

Not being invested in or supported as a Latinx youth forced me to look for ways to navigate the process alone and truthfully, I’m so lucky to have figured it out on my own. I never would have anticipated earning an entirely free “elite” education upon realizing it was just a matter of learning to navigate these historically exclusionary systems that weren’t designed for people like us.

Nonetheless, it’s definitely possible to make your dreams come true, and college is a great way to make it happen.