Accept Support & Trust Your Gut: Tips for First-Gen College Students

Samantha Cahill
September 23, 2013

My name is Samantha Cahill and I am a sophomore psychology major at Columbia College (CC) in South Carolina. I am from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  I am a first generation college student studying to become an occupational therapist. In two years, I will become the first member of my immediate family to graduate with a college degree. After that, I plan to obtain my master’s degree in occupational therapy and potentially my clinical doctorate.

No pressure, right?

I have wanted to be an occupational therapist since I job shadowed at an occupational therapy clinic my freshman year in high school. Before this, I toyed with the idea of being a teacher, an anthropologist, and a marine biologist, just to name a few. However, I had an "a-ha" moment when I stepped into the clinic and observed the life-changing work that occupational therapists do. I immediately knew that this was the career for me. Now, I get a swell of pride and sense of purpose whenever I walk into a clinic. This feeling of purpose is crucial to my success and perseverance in college. I know what I have to do in order to become who I am meant to be. This feeling is what kept me going throughout my tumultuous first year of college.

Making a Change

I came into college as a Biology major. I never imagined that I would switch majors, and I can honestly say that I never imagined that I would become, of all things, a Psychology major.

Samantha's College Survival Tips:


1: Never say never when it comes to academics and opportunities.


2: Don’t be afraid to change your mind about your major.


3: Don’t let academic vanity keep you in a position that you don’t want to be in.

I was terrified that people would think less of me for changing majors -- or that I switched to Psychology because I couldn’t handle the rigor of a Biology major.

Remember: Just because you change majors does not mean that you’re a failure; it simply means that you are taking another --often more logical --path to get to your ultimate career goal. In my case, it made more sense to become a psych major because of the nature of the career that I'm pur.

True, chances are I’m not going to need to recall invertebrate anatomy when dealing with a patient. Rather, I will use the information and skills that I learn about during these undergrad years to help my patients cope with their conditions. I'm also taking some of my favorite biology courses that relate to the human body, because I know these classes are required for graduate school. 

It is crucial to your sanity as an undergrad to not only select a major/program that makes the most sense for you, your learning style, and your ultimate career goal, but to be open to change when it is necessary. One of the great things about college is that it’s one of the few places where changing your mind is encouraged. I believe that college is about blazing the trail to become your best self.

Support Along the Way

I didn’t just have an epiphany one day that I would benefit from changing my major. I made this decision with the unwavering support of my parents, and my amazing mentor. Having a mentor is essential to my success in college, especially since I am the first one in my family to go. My mentor, Krystal, has not only completed her undergraduate degree, but she has also earned her Ph.D. She and I talk every week about the challenges I have faced over the previous week, and any challenges that I foresee. She also saves the day when I am stressing out about any number of things.

Krysal is a first generation college graduate herself. She has been through it all, and is extremely supportive and encouraging. For example, one of my professors was talking about his doctoral dissertation, and he threw out tons of scary words like “thousands of pages” and “countless hours of research” and “no sleep for years.” After that class, I immediately called Krystal in a panic asking her how she survived such a heavy endeavor. As usual, she explained that it really wasn’t as scary as it sounds, and even though pursuing a doctoral degree is difficult, it is doable for people who are determined.

Krystal is able to answer the questions that I have in ways that my parents cannot (through no fault of their own.)  Plus, she and I have become great friends in the year that we have known each other, which is always a plus in a healthy mentor/mentee relationship!

Having a mentor is also a great way to network with professionals, in my case, in the science field. My mentor has great connections -- and I'm quickly learning that in the real world, it is all about who you know in addition to what you know.  She is always introducing me to new people who can help me and who can offer even more advice. \

Before I knew it, I had a whole support system behind you filled with people I never imagined I would meet at the age of 20 -- and this can happen for you, too. Tha's why I highly recommend finding a mentor, preferably in your field of interest -- whether it be a faculty member, a professional in your desired field or an upperclassmen who has been through the challenges associated with starting college.

Take it from me: You can never have too much support!

Samantha Cahill is a sophomore at Columbia College, a small women's college in Columbia, SC, and a member of the inaugural class of the NeXXt Scholar's (Mentoring) Program through the New York Academy of Science. In her free time, she likes to hang out with friends and family and go to the beach.  She also co-teaches a college course for freshmen on how to succeed in school. Follow her on Twitter at @WeBSalmon.


This blog is part of the joint Demos and SparkAction project, First to Finish College.