By: Katie Gragnaniello, Manager, Policy Communications, State & Federal Policy

As students across the nation head back to the classroom, we are celebrating First-Generation students. A First-Generation College Student is defined as a student whose parents didn’t attend college; or is the first person in their immediate family to attend college; or neither parent has at least one year of college. This month, we are sharing stories from ACT colleagues who are First-Generation College Students.

Who inspired or supported you in your college-going journey?

My parents encouraged me to see the world and be inquisitive about the things I did not know. They wanted me to experience what they did not get the opportunity to do and were the constant motivation and inspiration in my life to chase crazy dreams. In many ways, we chased those dreams together and still do.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as a first-generation college student?

As a first-generation college student, I struggled with confidence, belonging, and not being academically prepared for college. I grew up in rural Texas and moving off to college meant I would be leaving the only place I have ever called home—Hamshire, Texas. My entire life had been the community in my small town, the people and place that raised me were my security blanket that I no longer had. I left everything I knew behind, and it was extremely difficult. I questioned where I fit in and where I belonged. I thought I no longer belonged in rural Texas, and I certainly felt like I did not belong on a college campus.

I was not academically or mentally prepared for college. There were more students in my college Algebra class than in my high school graduating class. I did not know anyone, and they did not know me. It was overwhelming playing catch up academically and not having a sense of community.

What advice would you give to a first-generation college student today?

My advice would be to find a community and reach out to other students who are first-generation. I would ask professors for help—something I wish I had done. I would also worry less about fitting in and make space for the new experiences.

The reality is that college will change you and you will come out a different person. Do not worry so much about where you fit in, fitting in does not mean one place, it means many places. You will fit in at home and away, with college graduates and non-college graduates, with the new and the old.

Lastly, it will be hard, but do not let the struggles and difficult times deter you from reaching the finish line. Do not let detours and road blocks take you off course, let the detours and road blocks be lessons and know everyone has a different course. And remember, the road that is straight is not always the most the fun. At a time when it is easy to question who you are–be comfortable in your skin and be you!

Years later, I’m now a graduate school student at Georgetown University fulfilling a dream I once thought was unreachable. My first day of class those feelings of fitting in flooded over me, and I reached out to a professor. He told me “you belong here,” and I’ll never forget that. I encourage all first-generation students to reach out to professors and find their community because you belong!

Katie Gragnaniello is a manager, Policy Communications in the State & Federal Program office. She received her B.A. in Mass Communication at Texas State University and is currently a M.A. candidate in International Business and Policy at Georgetown University.