Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience applying to college as a first generation student?

I grew up an only child in a two parent household. However, neither one of my parents went to college which generationally speaking seemed normal because college wasn't as imperative to career growth as it is now. So navigating the application process was an adventure within itself. It became a daunting task and quickly became overwhelming. My high school counselors had so many students in their caseloads and even though they worked diligently, it was still difficult to know if you were moving in the right direction. Throughout the process, I believe I had two saving graces. The first was a program implemented from a man in my community named Xavier Richardson who was a graduate of Princeton University. His program allowed us to tour college campuses and meet with recruiters. In retrospect, actually going to the physical campuses made the process of applying to college a lot easier and exciting. He also provided us with free SAT prep which was beneficial. The second event that propelled me through my application process was an uncle who had married into the family. He actually took me to his alma mater during a regular school day so I could see how a day on-campus would look like, feel like, and smell like. I was so captivated by the school, I ultimately decided to attend for my undergraduate experience.

What were some of the biggest difficulties you faced in the application process?

Some of the difficulties I faced early on were financial. Most public schools have programs that will assist with cost, so that was beneficial. The next hurdle normally is getting your hands on all your official documents, like your academic transcripts and medical records. This process made me realize the importance of the relationship between the school counselor and myself. I advise high school students to build that relationship early and to make sure they are consistent with visiting. This will make the application process a lot smoother.

How did you solve these problems?

I did my research and found every fee waiver I could find. I also set up weekly meetings with my counselor my senior year (do not feel guilty -- they are there for you).

What resources and tools did you use?

Collegeboard.org was my greatest resource throughout the entire process.

What advice would you give to other first generation students who are looking to apply to college?

I would tell them to make arrangements to visit a few college campuses of interest. I know resources can make it tough -- however, don't be afraid to ask extended family, church family, or community members for help. A college education will allow you to give back to that same community. I would also suggest becoming extremely diligent in scheduling appointments with that school counselor -- they are the bridge between you and an admissions department of universities.

How would you encourage students to ask for help who may be afraid to?

I would encourage students to write emails; if a young person writes me a well-written, professional email, that shows me he or she takes this situation seriously and I give it immediate attention. It also allows the young person to gather their thoughts and articulate their needs. I would urge young people to take advantage of the technological space we live in. All the help you need is at your fingertips.

How would you recommend a student approach the subject of college if their family has not historically had experience with a college education?

As a first generation college graduate, I would say you have to approach it aggressively, with a willingness to learn and understand that your parents may not be able to support you during this process, but you have to look at it like it's the scrimmage before the game. College is about your new found independence -- creating a schedule and waking up for class. This is just jump starting that process. Be hopeful for their support, but understand you are making new strides for your family as a whole.

What is the role of a high school providing support to students who may be lacking it?

I can't say this enough: become extremely close with your high school counselor -- they have your proverbial road map to college. Do not be hesitant to schedule weekly meetings.

What is one thing you would like to see all high schools adopt to help students who don't come from a traditional background apply and transition to college?

I would like to see all schools implement college tour programs. This gives first generation college students the opportunity not only to physically experience campus life, but the on-campus recruiters and admissions department can answer any questions face to face.

How can students who have always had the expectation of going to college be advocates for those who haven't?

It's all about influence. In the 90's, companies would have “cool chasing campaigns” where they would locate tastemakers or change agents in communities to get an insight on what was cool so they then in turn could market it for profit. A student who is already sold on the idea of college has to be an influencer. Essentially, be the tastemaker in your group and show other young people the perks of attending college. Freedom and a new environment are things that will lure newcomers to pursue their own collegiate experiences.

How can students assuage feelings of guilt being away from home, if they have previously been a provider of income, or childcare, to the family?

Keep the long-term goal in mind. I personally went through this, but I also knew that I was experiencing things my family had never experienced. I also realized that the end goal was a degree that would allow me to do way more for my family in the long run. As a first generation student, you must realize an education is a step ladder to your ultimate career goals. And a career will allow you to better the world and most importantly, the communities we come from.

Did you find any issues once you started at school? Things you weren't prepared for? Things your peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

I think every college freshman will run into a few issues here and there. It is super important to build on-campus relationships. I remember I was a first generation student and I had an issue. My freshman seminar teacher proved to be a valuable resource and helped me navigate the situation. It taught me a valuable lesson about networking; building relationships is the most important thing you can do when you step foot on campus.

In your opinion, how can colleges and universities improve their systems to help first generation, or under-supported students, have an easier transition?

I think colleges and universities have a responsibility to forge relationships with high schools. If students can have face to face interactions with admissions representatives, it takes some of the guess work out. Now as a college professor, I consider myself a walking billboard; I am always looking to share information with potential students. That way it's not just words on a paper -- it makes the process less intimidating.

Any final thoughts for us?

Being a first time college graduate was a life-changing experience. Education has taken me all over the world. I encourage students to embrace the journey. College will be full of twists and turns, but trust the process and always have the end goal in mind. Write out a plan your first day on-campus. Once you finish your matriculation, always pay it forward and influence more kids in your community to finish college.

Kendrick Kenney

Professor, Bowie State University

Kendrick Kenney grew up in Fredericksburg Virginia. He went on to earn a master's degree in organizational communications at Bowie State University as well as a bachelor's degree in mass communications from Virginia State University. Kendrick is currently a full-time communications lecturer at Bowie State University where he is also the coordinator of the broadcast journalism concentration. Before entering the classroom, Kendrick served as the lead video and media coordinator for two intercollegiate sports programs. Kendrick has also worked on projects and productions with Emmy award winning producers. Kendrick has a passion for brand management and takes pride in doing community outreach focusing on young people and media literacy. He is also a first generation college graduate.