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Reflections of a First Generation, Low Income Student

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Yousseff, a young man with tan skin and brown curly hair, sits outside and leans against a tree. He looks down at his macbook and wears jeans and a white plaid shirt.

I never believed I would go to college. As a low-income, first-generation student of color, college was never encouraged let alone realistic.

Suddenly, I was accepted to the University of Chicago as a QuestBridge scholar. I felt like I beat my identity, but after my first year was over, I realized my identity is what shaped my experience. 

For the most part, I felt the multilayered disparities endured by a disadvantaged student nationwide. I still found pockets of a normal and exciting college experience amidst that chaos. 

 

I want to be accessible for the students that are preceding a similar path as I was. Though I am not without current struggles, I am still among one of the most fortunate cases of the college process. I had access to mentors and networks that helped me see past the enchantment of being a “success story.”

I committed to deep self-work as my rebellion. I dared to lose the advancements I made for experiences that helped me gain paradigm-shattering insights into how the college process is a model built against most disadvantaged students.

These privileges are not equally available, distributed, or even encouraged. The opposite, as you know, is regularly enabled. That is why I created a student-led higher education advocacy platform to make more resources available for students like me. 

@youssefuniversity is my digital platform where I am a one-to-shop for everything college related. I have founded two scholarships in collaboration with brands that invest in the success of students.

I produce content that outlines all I have learned through the college application process from my numerous case studies, community based organizations, and research I have participated in.

Thousands of students have received at least a little clarity and opportunities that I hope they’ll be all the better for. In reality, I started with the hope of reaching one student at a time. Now I have a community – my Youssef University. 

Here are the most important takeaways from my first year at an elite institution. I’m hopeful that the lessons I learned may help empower disadvantaged students already in college and prospective students.

1. There is power in individuality

Support in higher education is distributed differently than I’ve experienced. No one checks in with you or hunts you down for assignments.

Your success is highly correlated to your ability to ask for help. My number one takeaway from this is if no one else is going to help you, then do not care about what they think. Ask those follow-ups during class, go to office hours, and have a tutor.

UChicago did not only offer tutors but they also offered tutors who were also first-generation and low-income. I felt seen and these resources were all free.

Most students at elite institutions have been receiving help their whole lives. Don’t let those same people’s perceptions stop you from doing the same. 

A Letter To First Generation Students

2. Sacrifices will have to be made

It’s inevitable as a disadvantaged student that you’ll need to make some sacrifices. College includes lifestyle, so it’s important to note that not everyone will have the same lifestyle.

Elite institutions do not prepare disadvantaged students for the difficulties of managing their finances and deliberating their time effectively. Figure out your priorities in terms of money, and then allocate where you are willing to sacrifice certain lifestyle choices.

I realized I was sacrificing any additional funding I had to visit home or to fit in with my peers and go out. One weekend, I spent $150 two days in a row and had severe anxiety over it.

Financial burden is real, economic disparities are real, and it took me forever to start making the right call. Sacrifices are necessary, but the question is which ones are most important.

Some sacrifices may even include physical and mental health. The earlier we’re aware, the sooner we can put our health first. 

3. Be bold before someone else is

I’ve spent so much time waiting for someone else “to give me a shot” without realizing I can create opportunities for myself. Since building my platform, I have founded two scholarships: the “Your Success” Youssef Scholarship and the “Youssef Hasweh x SportsHi Scholarship.”

I spent a lot of time uplifting the successes of others, or so I thought. However, once I centered myself on my path to success, it paid off exponentially in helping others more effectively.

Now, I am not only a national scholarship recipient but a national scholarship provider at 19 years old. Be the first bold person in the room. This has been the biggest lesson on self-development.

 

Disadvantaged students should never have to feel like they broke the status quo by finding success for themselves. Career centers and identity based offices at these “elite” institutions need to elevate students by helping them find their own success.

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