Insider's Guide for Incoming Latino College Students

Insider's Guide for Incoming Latino College Students

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You made it. You’ve struggled through twelve or more years of furious concentrating, reading until your eyes were sore, and scribbling until your hand screamed for a break. You’ve stressed about the future looming after high school graduation, stayed up late into the night cramming for exams and wanted to kill the flashing cursor on a blank word document waiting to be filled with a well-researched essay. You made it. Congratulations!

Now gear up for four more years of that.

This article is not meant to send you flying under your newly purchased Target comforter in fear (sorry, commuters, you have nowhere to hide). This is a guide for all the first-year students who are anxious, excited and ready to make the next four years of college the best four years of their lives.

According to Pew Research Hispanic Center, college enrollment for Latinos is not only increasing, but spiked dramatically in 2010. In 2012, Latino high school graduates enrolled in college at a higher rate than their white peers. Seven out of every 10 Latino graduates started college that fall. However, college completion rates for Latino students remain low. According to a 2008 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, half of all Latino students at four-year colleges obtained a bachelor’s degree in six years, compared to 60 percent of white students.

The challenges that create the most stress for students include finding grants and scholarships to afford higher education, adjusting to a different academic level, adapting to a new environment, homesickness and the pressure to figure out a path to the future. This guide will outline resources at schools for battling stress, and provide tips from veteran upperclassman to give you the confidence and control that you need to take on your first year like a pro.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

Betsy Batista will start her studies at Community College of Philadelphia at the beginning of September. “I don’t know what to expect,” Batista said honestly. “I don’t know how it’s going to be. I think it’s going to be fine.”

“Let’s see how it goes,” Batista said after a nervous laugh.

At the end of her four years of high school, two at Olney High School before transferring to Philadelphia High School for Girls, Batista graduated with the intent to continue her studies. She said that she plans to transfer to Temple University after two years at Community College of Philadelphia, graduate with a major in civil engineering and work in a job related to her field while earning her master’s and doctorate degrees.

Batista said that she’s looking forward to the independence of higher education, a welcome change from high school. “I think I’m going to have more freedom,” she said. “It’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, you’re late. I’m going to call your parents.’ I’ll have shorter classes; I’m not going to have, like, seven periods.”

While Batista said that she’s looking forward to starting, she’s wary that college studies may be more academically rigorous.

“I think it’s going to be different but I think it’s going to be hard at the same time,” Batista said.

The truth is that college and high school are not the same. While the academics may be more demanding than high school, students have more control over course selection. Studying a subject that’s engaging and interesting to you will make classes easier in a way.

Another major difference is that you’ll have five courses instead of eight or nine, spending about 15 hours a week in class as opposed to the 35 hours a week you spent in high school. While more free time sounds like an opportunity to stream the latest season of your favorite series on Netflix, you should remember that less time in class means more time on homework. You’ll be required to spend 30 to 50 hours a week on reading assignments, paper writing, studying and homework. But unlike high school, it’s your choice when to do your homework and go to class.

Which leads to the first tip: Go to class. It’s what you’re paying all that money for. Missing a class could cause you to fall behind. If you’re going to every class and still don’t feel confident in your understanding of the course material, talk to fellow students, tutors, teaching assistants and professors about what you could be doing differently. While some professors may seem intimidating, most are eager to connect with students during office hours.

Utilize resources like writing centers or tutoring services in your school to help you with your study habits and paper development. Many writing centers will even help you edit your papers. Don’t wait until you get a bad grade to find help.

Even if you feel that you have a handle on the material, get to know your professors. The importance of building professional relationships is often overlooked in college, but you never know when you’ll need a reference for an internship, recommendation for a scholarship or guidance for your future academic endeavors.

Forever alone

Natalia Lladó Calderón is a senior biology major with a minor in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. When asked to reflect on her freshman year, Calderón said that adapting to a new place with new people was the most challenging aspect.

“I didn't know anyone, I didn't know the campus or the city,” Calderón remembered. “I guess I felt overwhelmed.”

Calderon said that she regrets not realizing the importance of actively making friends early on in college.

“I was a little hesitant to go out at first,” she recalled. “By the time I got over it, it felt like everyone already had a friend group and I wasn't part of any.”

You may think that you’re forever alone, but so are hundreds of other first-year students. Everyone is new and looking to make friends. Don't wait around trying to develop a strategy. Knock on your neighbor’s door. Talk to the person next to you after class. Hang out in a game room or common area. Ask your roommate, cousin or high school friend to introduce people they know. If you see a flyer for a meeting that you’re even remotely interested in, attend. You won't meet new people or discover student organizations in your room at home or in your dorm. If possible, befriend upperclassmen who can introduce you to resources and organizations at your school. Don’t run home every weekend. Hang around to connect with other students and build a new home and family for the next four years.

If you start to feel bored with your surroundings, explore your new home. Go outside the boundaries of your school and get involved. Volunteer in community gardens, hospitals, animal shelters, or wherever your interests lie. You might discover your passions along the way.

Building a home away from home

Making friends is one thing. Building a family is another.

Tiffany Gomez is a senior communications major at the University of Pennsylvania and Editor-in-Chief at La Vida Magazine. She said that her friends made college a home away from home.

Gomez went to a high school where she was one of just a few Latinas. She said that one of her first resources at college was La Casa Latina, the Center for Hispanic Excellence at the University of Pennsylvania. “From then on I got involved in groups on campus — Latino groups on campus,” Gomez said.

“Coming here and meeting all Latinos from all over the country, not even just the United States but all over the world, was something really interesting and something that I wanted to be a part of,” Gomez said.

But after her freshman year, she recalled that her scope was becoming narrow and confined to the Latino community, so she decided to expand and involved herself in a variety of groups.

“I still have my leadership roles in the Latino community,” Gomez explained before adding, “It’s very easy to just stay within the (group of) people that you’re comfortable with.”

“College is the one chance that you’re going to get to explore with all these different types of people,” she said. “I love getting people that aren’t from the Latino community in our groups. We try to create this community of multiculturalism, but I think we tend to self-segregate. We miss the part where we tell kids, ‘You’re Latino, and go join the undergraduate assembly. You’re Latino, go join the [Nominations & Elections Committee] — these organizations that lack that kind of representation.”

College is a chance to discover yourself, your history, your culture and your passions. Sometimes that means exploring other cultures to learn more about your own. Share with friends to foster cultural exchange. Build your own family interested in celebrating who you are and who you will be together.

Sleep, social life, school — pick two (it’s not true)

Alissa Madera graduated from Manchester Township High School in New Jersey and will start her college experience at Rutgers University in New Brunswick as a chemistry major.

“I’m nervous but I got this,” Alissa said. “I expect lots of classes and lots of hard work and being tired.”

“And hating my life for a couple of years,” she added.

There’s no reason to sacrifice your happiness, studies or health to excel academically. Success in college depends on your ability to manage your time.

Try to stick to a schedule. In your first month of school, get to know yourself. How long does it take to do 20 pages of reading? How long for calculus homework? The sooner you know how long your schoolwork will take, the easier it will be to use a calendar, whether physical or electronic, to plan out when you will get your homework done between classes, meetings, gatherings and project deadlines.

University of Pennsylvania’s Weingarten Learning Resources Center provides counseling on time management, note-taking, reading and other important skills for academic success in college. The center emphasizes that effective time management is, “the single most important empowerment tool the overburdened college student can acquire.”

While you can’t control assignments or impromptu social gatherings, you can control your calendar. Knowing where you need to be and what you need to be doing at any point in the day will give you security and a handle on your life, relieving the extreme stress that comes from the question, “When am I ever going to get this done?”

Don’t let yourself fall behind or become overwhelmed. Battle stress by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and seeking out learning and counseling services at your college.

Payments accepted in cash, checks or bits of your soul

Michael Milek graduated from St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and will attend St. Louis University in Missouri this coming Fall semester.

“It’s far away, but I feel as though it’s something that I have to do.” Milek explained. “I’m the first generation to go to college on my dad’s side. I kind of just want to make it in life.”

Milek said that he decided to major in athletic training after becoming involved in CrossFit exercise and training facility in Philadelphia during his junior year. He developed what he referred to as an appreciation for the body. Milek explained that his mother is physically affected by Multiple Sclerosis.

“I wanted to do physical therapy to help people like my mom,” he said. “I just like helping people, helping them get in shape and fix their bodies.”

Milek credited his mother’s encouragement and his counselor’s assistance with finding and applying to St. Louis University, where he was awarded the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr. scholarship.

“I’m just going to keep going,” Milek said. “I’m just going to succeed, work my best and my hardest.”

The cost of college is shocking. If you find yourself staring with dread at the number of zeros behind that twenty on your bill, remember that there are ways to earn and manage your money. Just as you manage your time, keep track of where and how you spend.

Apply for work study or university jobs. Because they are designed for students, work study jobs are more flexible and take your class schedule into account. Their proximity will save you time and money that you’d otherwise spend traveling to a job off campus. In addition to a paycheck, work study jobs offer a sense of community and an opportunity to befriend coworkers.

Always be on the lookout for scholarships. Your college and department most likely have endowments for sophomores, juniors, seniors, and individuals within your major. Talk to financial aid advisors and do your own research online. Open e-mails from professors for scholarship recommendations or paid internships. They’ll look excellent on your resume in addition to deferring college costs.

Save money on textbooks by checking the library for hard copies and ebooks. If you have to purchase books, first check used stores and online distributors such as Half.com, Amazon.com and Textbooks.com. Most schools offer rental books, but don’t forget that if you own your copy, you can sell it back for cash at the end of the semester.

“I can’t get out of bed and my doctor is 200 miles away.”

Many students forget that health services are included in your university fees. Student health centers generally offer immunizations, physical exams, STD testing, gynecology services, family planning, allergy shots and a voice of reason when you’re convinced that you’ve contracted scarlet fever when your symptoms seem to definitely match the ones on WebMD. Look for self-care sections to stock up on free pain relievers, decongestants and bandages.

“I can take the Chemistry of Wine right after Badminton, right?”

Choosing your own courses is an exciting and overwhelming task. Most department web sites outline required courses for each major and the number of credits you need to graduate. Figure out your major, university and general education requirements so that you can develop a plan for the next four years. Keep in mind classes that are only offered during certain semesters and those that require prerequisites. Whether you’re undeclared or set on a major, make an appointment with an advisor to ensure that you’re on track. Sign up for classes the moment you are eligible, before they fill to capacity.

“What am I doing with my life?”

You have plenty of time and resources to develop a career path your first year. Explore different subjects through general education requirements. Take advantage of your school’s career services to assess your interests and the best way to achieve employment after graduation. If you’re already looking for internships, career services can review resumes, facilitate mock interviews and provide networking opportunities. Even if you’re not exactly sure what you want to do, some real experience could help you decide what you love or hate to narrow down your options.

“This guide isn’t helping and I’m freaking out”

Take a deep breath. Everyone has a hard time adjusting to college life, especially if they are away from their friends and family. If you really start to feel like your life is spinning out of control, make an appointment with counseling services at your school. Universities offer psychological guidance, alcohol and substance abuse counseling and support for victims of sexual assault. These counseling services are offered in individual or group sessions.

Don’t forget that college is about you. It’s your four years to learn new things, try something weird, make friends with different people and define yourself. As long as you are happy, healthy and proactive, the rest will come.

You’ve made it through 12 or so years of school already. What’s another four, anyway?