The Discussion Continues with the First-Gen Student

Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 4 comments

A blank sheet... full of possibilities!

(I mentioned in my last post that I already had some particulars on the situation with the first-gen student. Here is the rest of the story. Students, maybe you’ve faced this situation where you found that there were other things that fueled your passion way more than your schoolwork. Then, you had a hard time focusing on assignments, studying, etc. Well, let me tell you, you don’t have to be in college for that to happen! Read on for more of the story–and some advice that may help you deal with this issue while you’re in school!).

Dear Ellen,

Thanks for replying and being genuinely concerned. As to your first set of questions dealing with my classes and what happened to put me in this situation, the answer is a number of things.

Throughout my academic career, school was never really my thing and it always took my parents lighting a fire under my butt in order to get me going.

I’m capable of doing the work, I just procrastinate almost every chance I get. (Programming note… I’m keeping this next part intentionally vague for anonymity sake, but have kept the theme of the discussion). Along with that, I am into the arts. It is something that I really want to make a career out of. I’ve won some national competitions and when I got to campus I became very involved with organizations on campus related to what I love.

I put things having to do with the organization over school work and honestly didn’t feel bad about it because it’s something I want to do in the future as a career. If my school allowed me to only take classes involving my interest, I would pass all of my classes with flying colors. But that’s not how it works.

My parents have supported me a lot, because I am the first in the family to go to college. My parents support me in anything I do.

Right now, I am waiting for grades to be posted. I’m just waiting to see if I’ll be put on probation or not. I already have the mindset of going back to school and dedicating all my time to it and becoming much less involved in the organization. But if I am put on probation, I really need to prepare myself for what I need to do.



And my response, once again, which I will also sanitize for any identifiers and abbreviate as best I can. Many thanks for all of your comments and more are certainly welcome!

Dear Student:

It sounds like you have done some incredible, incredible things already with the creative part of yourself, so there is no doubt in my mind that you have it in you to do what you need to do for school. So tell me this:

What classes did you start out with this first year? Did an academic adviser guide you? Did you pick your own classes? I think there is a lot to be said for someone who is tepid about being in school to be a little selfish about picking classes that you’re going to be passionate about to start, regardless of what is “suggested” (I may be going against the grain with this suggestion–I realize that). So, in my mind, if you were my advisee and I knew that you loved the arts and had a track record of being a less than enthusiastic student, I might have front-ended you with classes that would fit your Gen Ed req’s, but fed those passions.

Okay, so I’m not going to tell you that Chem is going to feed that need, but if you are buffering Chem with three other classes that you love, it might help.

I see what you’re saying about being involved in your organization and absolutely loving that and then letting your class work go. Let’s just be real here: this happens to people all the time! Don’t think for one minute that profs and employees at all levels don’t get caught up in a special project that they love to do, but they still HAVE to do that “everydayness” of their career (which suddenly they don’t really want to do because they are being emotionally and mentally fed by this other thing they love!).

Personal disclosure: I just had a book come out two weeks ago (I’m a creative type, too, though you have me beat in many areas!). Now, if you think for one minute I am as excited about doing my “day work”–I’ve been doing grant work for the past year, not in the classroom–with a shiny book out, well, you can only imagine :-) . Sure, I still like my work, but I’m jazzed about my book! It’s a dream come true! So, see? You are not alone in those feelings. But, as it sounds like you know, sometimes we need to force ourselves into the “have to do” in order to reach the passion point of the “get to do.”

Here is my recommendation for you about that and I’m wondering if it could help with the mindset of your future classes. I’m going to put this in the framework of grad school: There, you pick a topic YOU want to study and you make all of your classes and research tie into that topic. That’s your job.

I wonder if there are parts of your classes that can become this way for you (?). So, let’s say you have to write a paper in history. Could you talk to the prof about it being something to do with history/the arts, which is a subject that you love (if you were a sports fanatic, I would make that recommendation). If you have a speech to give in Public Speaking class, how about giving it on your experiences with your national awards?

Do you see where I’m going? Again, I can’t turn Calculus into something artistic, but maybe you can give yourself some sort of reward system of what you “get to do” if you focus. I’m also going to go out on a limb here and say that depending on the agreement you have with your parents and your financial aid situation, you may not *have* to get all A’s either (I’m not saying D’s, but B’s are respectable grades, and many people celebrate over C’s with classes that they struggle in). I’m just saying that there are lots of options here that are NOT all or nothing.

Now, let’s talk about the grades: Once you know what they are, remember, get the full story before you go to your parents. At some colleges, D’s still allow you to pull the credit out of the class. They aren’t a celebration, but sometimes they aren’t the equivalent of failing either. It just depends on your program/college.

Is there ANY way to circle back to your profs either in person or on e-mail to debrief your grades? If there is, I would strongly, strongly recommend that you do that. I don’t know if there is anything that could be done, but you never know. The profs may have suggestions that we aren’t aware of, but if you’re going back (are you attending this summer?), it would be good to know.

Last suggestion: If the entire term was bad, find out about academic renewal or its equivalent. I am not sure how this would affect your financial aid. At some colleges, there is a mechanism where you can wipe out an entire term’s worth of grades, but the caveat is that you have to be willing to let the whole term go. Sometimes, this cannot be done until a few years have passed–every college is different (and not all colleges offer this option), but it is worth looking into.

Keep me posted on how you’re doing. Once again, you are totally not alone. And your successes in other areas prove that you will find a way to make college work for you.



  1. Dear Student,
    from one studen to another, I’m impressed with what you’ve accomplished so far. National arts competitions? That’s awesome! As a musician and vocalist I can only dream of that type of success.

    As a student whose also had to face my parents with low academic performance, I understand your trepidation. I’d agree with ellen here though: get all your facts together, then approach them. As scary as it is to talk to professors, especially when you’ve done poorly in their class, it’s absolutely necessary here. This might sound obvious to you, but be 100% honest and up front with your parents about how you did this year. Having lied to my parents about grades and how things have gone, it’s not a good trend to set. Even if they never find out you didn’t tell the truth, you’re guilt about it may make it harder for you to move on. It may even make you question your character and your self-worth. I know it’s hard, and I can only imagine how much harder it is for you as a first generation college student, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

    Even if you have to lessen your involvement in campus clubs, don’t stop your art. It might be tempting if you get stressed about school, but art is incredibly important for your well-being and obviously means a lot to you. I stopped singing and playing the piano and violin in my first year, and it was a huge mistake.

    Take care of yourself my friend, and know that you are well-supported, by Ellen and all who have read your story.


    • Thank you so much for sending this to the student. There is nothing like support from someone who has been there. It sounds like you have definitely figured things out for yourself, Sarah, so be proud! :-) . Ellen

  2. Salve Student,

    I have always had good responses from professors when I ask them whether I can choose a topic for a paper that interests me rather than the ones they have provided. You need to make sure of two things when doing this: 1) You are not straying too far from the intention of the research paper. 2) You are not making so much more work for yourself that it counter-balances the relief of researching a topic you actually like.

    I once turned a simple history research paper into a paper that analyzed Christian symbolism in Russian folklore. I loved the topic that I chose, and got permission because it still stayed within the class topic (Russian Orthodoxy). My professor also ended up loving the paper. It was a really successful paper because I found a way to tie it into something we both valued.

    • Thank you for your comment, Rachel! So true that when you ask the prof ahead of time about going for a particular topic, the results are usually favorable. You bring up an excellent point about not making more work for yourself when doing this. Keeping in touch with the prof can be really helpful in these times. There was one occasion where I had a student so passionate about a topic that was far out of my realm of expertise. We actually brought in another professor who was an expert in the subject and he helped reel the student back in to make the subject manageable. Excellent ideas here! Ellen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>