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Why First Gens Thrive Abroad

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I learned early in my college journey that there is a difference between your resourcefulness and your resources. Resources come and go, and some of us inherited more than others. Resourcefulness, however, is a skill that anyone can develop and is a particularly important life skill that can make for a successful student and traveler,and serve as preparation for career development and life after graduation.
For some students, study abroad will be their first introduction to immersing themselves into a radically new environment. However, first generation students already accomplished that – when they entered college.

From US First Gen to UK International Student

During my first year at my home university, I often found myself relying on international students who were trying to figure out the US college system. (As a first gen, I was too!) Seeing how remarkable their diverse backgrounds were gave me plenty to learn from. Later on, I realized how much they got out of studying in the US. At that moment, it occurred to me that studying abroad would be a profoundly impactful and defining experience.
As it turns out, I was right. My program exposed me to historic traditions like formal hall at one of the oldest universities in the world. I experienced once-in-a-lifetime sightseeing memories from Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh to Buckingham Palace in London. I was exposed tocomplex and challenging learning environments at the University of Cambridge and new art and food throughout the UK. Some of my favorite moments have been mind-blowing conversations with locals on everything from regional customs (like a pint after work) to slang (in case I needed to “top up an Oyster card”, honor “Chatham House Rules”, or describe a celeb crush as a “thinking woman’s crumpet”) to politics (Iarrived in the UK the same weekend asthe US president did – with a rich dialogue of discussion to be had beneath the shadow of a giant baby balloon).

The Art of Making Mistakes

While I didn’t magically know the details surrounding currency exchanges or the differences in a UK classroom, what I did have was experience being observant, researching or politely asking before assuming, and an instinct on where to find that information. I read the IFSA and Cambridge program handbooks before I got on my overseas flight and followed directions meticulously. Among new friends, I’m always the one with directions backed-up offline on my phone, carrying extracopies of maps and reservation confirmations, and ready to send an inquiry email or “join the queue” for an info desk.
Having befriended premed students and studying at one of the world’s top universities, I’m certainly not the most clever or most intelligent person here. What sets me apart is my experience. First gens have a lot in their repertoire, but flexibility, adaptability, humility, patience, curiosity, self-awareness, and determination are highlights. These also happen to be extremely helpful skills when travelling.
There is a specific kind of culture shock between high school and college when you’re doing it on your own. Figuring out the FAFSA, CSS Profile, SATs, college applications, financial aid procedures, residential regulations, course registration, what-to-bring, where-to-go, and how-to-read a syllabus was overwhelming.
I didn’t know the best way to address a professor in an email, whether or not it was cool to wear a lanyard, or what “legacies” and “alumnae” were. Publicly asking what a syllabus is or what “office hours” means and being confused over a schedule that changes daily is no more difficult than adjusting to lifestyle and institutional differences in your program abroad, especially if there’s a minimal language barrier.

When Inexperience Becomes a Superpower

If you can learn how to acclimate to college at home, you often already have the sensibility and willingness to do the same with people of other cultures. Understanding that some people have a very different lifestyle, socioeconomic status, dialect and accent or even language than you, is important in both contexts.  If you’re respectful, humble, comfortable making a few inevitable mistakes, able to follow the lead of a crowd, and willing to pay attention before making any big moves, you can fit in anywhere you go.
The first gen experience is one of developing life skills quickly and early – and supports the ability to live independently after college. When you’re going to a new place, just a small fish in a big pond of a new system, you have to be resourceful and open to the experience. The frugality I learned in figuring out how to pay for my education became the spending savviness that made me a safe and successful traveler. The astuteness that motivated me to better my life circumstances beyond the horizon of what my parents were able to build for me was the same shrewdness that helped me identify the opportunity and educational plan to study abroad.
Not knowing what to expect has given me a super power. No matter where I am or what I’m pursuing, I’m confident in one thing: my ability to figure it out.

Miranda Wheeler is a student at Mount Holyoke College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England, United Kingdom in Summer 2018.