Empowered by Perspective: Top Tips for Minority and First-Gen College Students

For minority, first-generation, and low-income students, preparing for college can be daunting. But this advice from their peers can help!

Preparing for college can be stressful and time-consuming. For students from minority or low-income backgrounds, it can seem even more daunting—but that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve an excellent education. In fact, a unique perspective can be empowering in the college process.

Ty Running Fisher is used to feral cats around his ankles, bright sunsets across the sky, and helping his family raise cattle. But this year, he's headed to Stanford.

"I'm the first generation to go to an elite college," he says.

With that in mind, he's been busy taking placement exams and trying to brush up on his calculus. The considerations he has to make, though, are many.

"The main challenges I face when thinking of Stanford are the curriculum, students, and population," Running Fisher says. "I am from a public reservation school in Montana, so the learning curve is slightly lenient, and the real objective is to just graduate, not excel in academics. So the curriculum is going to be extremely difficult to adapt to and even more difficult because I will basically hit the ground running when I get to campus.

“The students are a challenge that faces me mentally,” he adds, “because [I feel like] all of the students at Stanford are most definitely prepared, and I just feel like I am not one who is completely ready."

It's a common enough feeling on elite college campuses, however, that it's been given a name: impostor syndrome. The Stanford Psychology department sees a lot of cases throughout the year, and it's usually present in students who feel like they're the "one mistake" that a college made in their admission decisions, or that their achievements aren't really "anything to speak about" when compared to other students. Impostor syndrome tends to disproportionately affect students who identify as first-generation or minority as well.

Running Fisher adds that he finds solace in his community of Blackfeet Native Americans and is planning to continue to do so in college—something that helps dispel impostor syndrome.

"I am a Montanan, and reservation student, so I grew up in a state with only one million people, and the reservation only has around 5,000 people on it, which are all Native Americans—so, transitioning to a multimillion-populated state is a huge difference that causes some slight discomfort," he says. "But honestly, joining a small community with similar interests and people will make you feel like you're at home, with friends you grew up with."

Believing that his perspective charges him with an advantage is critical as well, he says. 

"An underdog always has more fight," he says. "In that sense, many outside resources, and Native [American] resources, are going to put as much effort as I do in my road to success, so no more Natives become a statistic of college drop-out rates, generalizing us all…I am very competitive and will go extremely far to be capable of competing with all the [prepared] students on campus in the classroom."

Running Fisher is ready for a challenge, and he encourages others like him to apply.

"Be ready to go take care of the business that needs to be taken care of to be successful,” he says. “We are all in this together, immersing in a new atmosphere…I'm certain I will do fine. I have always traveled so my social skills are good, and I love diversity so I will thrive and be happy on campus."

For more information and help with applications for low-income and first-generation students, check out College Search Help for Disadvantaged Students on CollegeXpress.

Taylor Wright intends to major in Management Science and Engineering next year at Stanford, confident in her unique perspective in STEM. Wright spent her childhood in Houston suburbs with her close family, attending a small Christian school throughout middle and high school.

"The environment there was wonderful, but it was very homogenous in terms of belief systems, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity," Wright says. "Almost everyone around me was a white upperclass Christian Republican. I loved growing up with these people, but my parents made sure to expose me to different communities as well."

One of Wright's favorite high school memories is being part of Jack and Jill of America, Inc., an organization founded with a focus on "integrating black youth into a community of successful, black peers and role models," she says, while valuing leadership skills and community service. Her church, as a multi-ethnic, -cultural and -lingual congregation, also contributed to her perspective.

"Honestly, being the only black woman in a classroom or one of the few in engineering is not new for me," Wright explains. "Most of the people around me will not think twice about the rarity of black women in engineering, so my perspective will differ simply because I am aware of the lack of diversity in the classroom and in the engineering field as a whole.

“In light of the situation, the disadvantage is mostly from within,” she continues. “I am the only one who can and would ever care to diminish my confidence based on my ethnicity. However, I am determined to succeed in this field, and it is wonderful having a small community of people particularly rooting for minority students in STEM fields. That’s a community that I would not trade for the world."

Many such programs that encourage diversity in college, particularly in STEM, exist once students apply and are accepted to colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Interphase Edge program and the Stanford Summer Engineering Academy (SSEA).

These opportunities also exist for students who are low-income, first-generation, and/or underrepresented minorities at a variety of colleges as "fly-in" programs, fully funded two- or three-day experiences of that college during a student's senior year of high school. More information on top colleges offering similar excursions can be found here.

For Wright, who attended the SSEA program in August 2017, it was extremely valuable to share her experiences with similar students and have deep, engaging conversations with peers who share her viewpoints, as well as those who do not.

"Diversity and inclusion is so important, and I do not think that any field of study is truly succeeding in that respect until that field matches the ethnic and cultural makeup, as well as the gender composition, of its community," she says. "Engineering schools and businesses should continue to invest in diversity until that goal is met."

For students who are considering top colleges, her best advice this fall is to simply apply.

"Your success is dependent on your outlook on life. Once you get here, do not try to tackle your education alone," she says. "If you are struggling in a class, get help. If you are not sure what the next right move is, seek advice. If you are confused about a concept, ask questions. There are so many people willing and available to help you; all you have to do is seek them out.

“Additionally, do not be afraid to speak up and speak out on any topic as a woman or minority student,” she adds. “Your insights are unique and precious because of the experiences that you have had, so make sure that your voice is heard."

She's particularly excited for opportunities that Stanford offers, like the a capella groups and choirs, as well as intramural sports, the Society of Women Engineers, and Society of Black Scientists and Engineers.

"Maybe I will even try something new like swing dancing—who knows?" she says. "I’m just super excited to get involved, contribute my ideas, and make the most of my Stanford experience. You only get a limited amount of time [in college], and I fully intend to use it to its fullest extent."

Related: Start searching for colleges on CollegeXpress!

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