Five Tips From a First-Gen Rutgers Graduate: ‘What I Wish I Knew Before I Started College’

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Christelle Louis is a first-generation graduate of Rutgers University-Newark’s Class of 2021. She is currently a Global EdTech Program Manager at Amazon Web Services. 

Every fall, I’m reminded of three things: oversized sweaters, dirty chai lattes, and the dreaded back-to-school time. But this year, there’s one big change: I’m no longer a college student.

Attending school was the biggest part of my life, whether I liked it or not. I was sheltered in the safety of always knowing what to expect next; there was elementary school, then middle school, to be followed by high school, and, if I worked hard enough, college.

Since graduation in May, I’ve found myself reflecting on my college experience and how I ended up with my dream job in tech. As an immigrant and first-generation college graduate, there was a lot I didn’t know about college and career success. Initially, I didn’t have anyone around me doing what I wanted to do nor anyone volunteering advice and critical information on how to get there. I thought I would have to figure it out myself. Thankfully along the way, I met so many selfless, successful people who made it their mission to help me figure out my journey. This not only changed my confidence but the course of my early career.

To pay it forward, I’d like to share some tips and lessons I learned during my time at college. Whether you’ve just entered or will be soon entering college, here are 5 things I wish I knew before beginning my college journey:

  • Take advantage of campus resources

College is a place that has endless opportunities and resources available at your fingertips. You just have to be hungry enough to take them on–you are paying for them after all! Whether the gym, swimming lessons, writing centers, dance clubs, therapy, religious groups, or career accelerating programs, there is something available for every student.

During my time at Rutgers University-Newark, I made sure to take advantage of as many opportunities I came across. I joined Braven, a career-accelerating program dedicated to assisting under-represented students to close the education-to-employment gap, and gained mentorship, interviewing skills, a network, and confidence to secure an internship and job. I also visited the Career Development Center frequently for resume reviews as well as advice on my career trajectory and salary negotiation. Taking advantage of these resources and my go-getter attitude is what helped me land my dream job post-graduation at one of the Big Tech companies, Amazon Web Services.

  • Reach out to professionals in the industry in which you want to work and ask questions!

Once you have an idea of what industry you’d like to work in, the next step is to find professionals who are currently doing your dream job and ask as many questions as possible. To find these professionals, tap into your university’s network through your professors, attend networking events, and leverage LinkedIn. When reaching out, politely introduce yourself, share your interest in speaking to them, and ask them for 15 minutes of their time to hop on a quick call to discuss their career journey and any advice they may have. Trust me: people love to give advice to college students, so don’t be shy.

However, do not ask them for a job, internship, and/or connection the first time you meet, unless they offer. You don’t know this person well yet and don’t want to make them feel as if you are only interested in using them as a stepping stone. Be sure to cultivate the relationship by keeping them up-to-date on happenings in your college and career journey.

  • Apply to internships, co-ops, and training sessions

Applying for an internship or job in a field you’re interested in while you’re still in school is a great way to get a sneak peek of what it would be like working there full-time. Plus, obtaining an internship in college increases your chances of getting a full-time offer prior to graduation. Leverage your university’s career center, career accelerating programs or courses like the one Braven offers, and LinkedIn Jobs to search for opportunities that may be a great fit for you. Get feedback on your resume and interviewing skills to position yourself as a better candidate for the role. And, maybe most importantly, don’t get discouraged by rejections and keep applying. My internship search was not easy at all, and I received as many as 100+ rejections before I got my first offer.

  • Limit collecting student loan debt; attend an affordable school that’s right for you.

One of the worst things about leaving college is the thousands of dollars in student loan debt accumulated over the 4 years. The best way to avoid the depressing cloud of debt is to prioritize attending a university that’s affordable and fits your career trajectory. In my experience, I was able to pay for my tuition out of pocket by taking on multiple jobs and applying for scholarships. I also applied to become a Resident Assistant to ensure I had free on-campus housing, food, and book stipends during my time on campus. (Work smarter, not harder!) The sacrifices I made to avoid collecting any student loan debt were difficult at the moment but ultimately worth it looking back. I graduated college with $0 in student loans and now get to allocate my salary to the things that matter the most to me while living debt-free.

  • Take care of yourself and have fun

College can be one of the best times of your life so don’t forget to enjoy it. Being academically successful in college is important, but so are your experiences and the impact you had as an undergraduate. College is also a place where you will meet friends for a lifetime; surround yourself with genuine people who love and support you. Get into a health and fitness regimen while you are at school because “the freshman 15” is a real thing. Get some workout buddies during your free time and stay active. Your body and mind will thank you for it!

Remember: the seeds you plant now will turn into flowers in due time. Make wise decisions that will aim to set you up for success in the future. Work hard, be yourself, and have fun!

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