This soon-to-be teacher, the first in her family to go to college, has advice for advice-givers.
February 21, 2020
Alexandria Organ is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a first-generation college student, double majoring in exercise and sports science and human development and family studies. After she gets through the graduation whirlwind, she plans to become an elementary school teacher with the 2020 Dallas-Fort Worth corps. Throughout her undergrad years, Organ has worked with local nonprofits to mentor middle and high school students, often talking to them about college. At a time when rising tuition and debt loads are on the minds of aspiring students, she spoke with One Day about how teachers and the rest of us can support first-generation college aspirants.
Q: High school students are offered a lot of advice before they head off to college. What advice best guided you once you got there?
A: Don’t put yourself in a box. Explore. Impostor syndrome will lead to doubts. Even now I still have them. But I tell myself especially as an African American student, and typically one of the few—that I do belong. I do deserve to be in this space. I earned my place here.
Q: What advice was less helpful?
A: In North Carolina, we know that NC State and UNC are top-tier schools. So early on in high school, teachers would try to motivate us by saying that only a handful of students would get in. For a class of 300 students, that was discouraging. Help students be realistic about grades and finances, but don’t shoot their dreams down completely.
“I tell myself—especially as an African American student, and typically one of the few—that I do belong. I do deserve to be in this space. I earned my place here.”
Q: First-generation college students of course face challenges, but they also arrive on campus with some unique strengths. What mindsets can high school teachers encourage?
A: I would say it’s our eagerness and drive. We’re all eager and driven to break the barriers placed upon us, whether financial or because of our backgrounds. We’re eager and driven to accomplish a goal to feel good and change the odds.
Q: Navigating college often requires some creativity. What unexpected strategies have you employed?
A: Talking to complete strangers and sharing my story. For example, when I arrived at college, I was assigned an adviser, but it wasn’t working out. I ended up talking at a library to some people I’d never met and sharing my concerns about not feeling supported. They connected me with a fabulous new adviser. He’s not here anymore, but he’s still a mentor to me, and he’s connected me with other mentors.
Q: Drawing on your own experience, how would you change practice to promote college access for first-generation students?
A: People will tell you there’s plenty of free money out there, but it’s not visible. That space is really hard to navigate. So I’d create more areas where students can go to easily find all of the resources they need.
Illustration by Elan Harris