I walked into college fighting to survive. Not that that fact has changed any, but I have learned many things that have made the survival journey a lot easier. As a current Junior at Swarthmore College, a small, pre-dominantly White liberal arts college near Philadelphia, I have learned a lot about academia and navigating getting through my 13th-15th grades in school. I did not have the most supportive childhood and as a young Black woman from the Bronx, I have questioned my place much throughout these college years. I didn’t feel smart enough, brave enough, but everyday I wake up with the purpose to advocate for who I am and what I stand for today.
The hardest part of being a first generation college student for me was feeling as if I was alone when things weren’t going as well as I expected. I failed my first test in my introductory biology course; biology had been my best subject while in high school and I always loved it. I ran to my academic advisor I was assigned, and thankfully she was a Dean and told me to walk a few doors down and ask for a tutor. I wasn’t in the position to say no, so I didn’t. That tutor lead to a research opportunity in the biology department the very next semester and the rest of my Swarthmore career. I’ve been frustrated by many other professors and classes; my GPA does not shine and sparkle as much as it did in high school. PhDs are not as smart as the title/degree would have you think. These are things I learned to accept because I needed to keep pushing to keep my full ride (attained with the help of the Questbridge College Match Program). I’ve had traumatic things happen to me and I spoke to so many people that I ended up being pointed to help in the form of therapy and many faculty/staff mentorships along the way. Asking for help actually ended up being one of the single most powerful skills I have learned along my college journey.
My advice I give to first generation college students is to bark loudly (though, not rudely). If you need help, in any form, reach out to at least one person. If they don’t help, look to someone else. Network profusely: you may not agree with the methods of everyone, but they may help you indirectly in the future. Seize opportunities that are given to you, but don’t over-commit. Pick battles strategically. Enjoy college and know that it is about finding yourself because you will be utterly confused about your views on life most days. Be patient because every day will not be the best and sometimes you will feel as if you don’t belong. Be kind to yourself, because you deserve it. You deserve thinking space too, so make sure you relax sometimes, but always remember why you came to college: it’s an effort to advance your life. Embrace the experience, breathe a lot, and love a lot. It will make life a lot easier.
Rebecca Ruby Ahmad, Swarthmore College Class of 2014
Psychology and Educational Studies Major, Biology Minor