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More than 20-years ago, I was a first-generation student who had decided to apply and enroll in a university that was far away from home.

I didn’t know how to navigate college – including the acronyms, financial aid, registration, and more. I remember signing paperwork and mailing it back to campus to enroll and arrange for my first-semester payment. My enrollment counselor confirmed what degree program I was interested in and then selected classes for me. Just like that, I was in.

As context, growing up in a limited-income, single-parent, rural household, I had heard about the concept of college but knew none of the details. Luckily, my guidance counselor told me that I would need to check a few things off the college-preparatory list: take the ACT/SAT, research colleges and universities, and then apply to see where I could get in. My mom hadn’t gone to college, so everything was a learning process for me. She and I packed up our little sedan and visited multiple universities in just a few days. I applied to them all and got letters letting me know I got in a few months later. Then, I selected the one that seemed to be least costly, had the best amenities – (residence halls, dining, and student organizations), and offered a few of the degree programs that caught my interest.

I was dropped off on campus and started to “settle in.” While I didn’t know anyone to begin with, I soon found my people. We were from all over the country and felt like outsiders — we didn’t necessarily look alike or have the same upbringing, but we stuck together and made it through. I gathered more connections through my on-campus jobs, student organization involvement, and class study groups. I was eventually selected for student leadership roles, engaged in internship opportunities, and even received awards and scholarships for my efforts. I graduated in four years with a bachelor’s degree and still maintain many friendships with those I met during my experience.

Despite (many) barriers to my college experience, I have come a long way. Today, I am a Ph.D. candidate and serve in a leadership role at a top-5 public serving university. As part of my current role, I often help guide students and family members to on-campus resources that elevate confidence in an often-confusing environment. Below, I share some of the offices where I frequently refer and explain their role in the student experience.

  • Career Center: Once the office that edited resumes, today’s career centers do much more for students – from career pathway exploration and internship management to networking workshops and even the operation of career closets that help dress students for job interviews. I recommend that you find this office and encourage your student to keep going back to explore all they have to offer!
  • Case Management Services Office: There are often unexpected obstacles or expected changes that occur during the collegiate experience. The staff in this office – often contained within student affairs – work with students who encounter uncertainty, distress, or crisis to connect with appropriate resources and make their own plans for how to move forward. While most students don’t know about this office until they need it, I recommend that your student get familiarized and understand how it can help from the get-go.
  • First Generation Student Program Center: These offices provide guidance that assists in the completion of basic college requirements and holistic support for students aimed at helping them to successfully complete a degree program. These programs often require applications and interviews before an invitation to join, so be sure to encourage your student to do their research well in advance.
  • Identity Center: This center often encompasses a variety of offices that represent support for students across the identity spectrum: Asian-Pacific Islander-Desi, Black-African Diaspora, Chicanx-Hispanic-Latinx, LGBTQIA+, Native American-American Indian-Indigenous, and more. Students will often find spaces where they are welcomed and that promote access, empowerment, and success. Ask to see these spaces and meet the staff any time you visit a campus.
  • Student Involvement Center: This office is often one of the best, first stops for students who want to find a registered organization that aligns with their academic major, one that aligns with a general interest, or a Greek organization. Keep in mind that larger universities often have hundreds of options, so if your student doesn’t find the right one immediately, it isn’t unusual and doesn’t need to be a barrier to involvement on campus.

These are only some of the offices that may be available at a college or university to support the student experience. As a student who had to navigate barriers – be encouraged that it is possible to thrive, especially if you take advantage of all the support available along the way.


Jonathan has worked in higher education for 15+ years at institutions nationwide, presently serving as (Interim) Dean of Students at the Top-5 ranked University of Florida. He is also a prior first-generation college graduate and current PhD Candidate at Indiana State University.