By Fernando Diaz, Chief Financial Product Officer, Illinois State Treasurer

August 18, 2020

Early in my career, I spent over a decade in higher education helping students succeed in college. This Fall, my daughter becomes a college freshman. As I think about ways to support her success, I reflect on my years at the university.

Across the thousands of young people I’ve worked with, I’ve seen time and time again that the first year is a crucial one for college students. As they enter a new academic, social, and physical environment, college freshmen naturally experience a range of emotions — from excitement and nervousness to doubt and, sometimes, discouragement. This is especially true for first-generation students who are the first in their families to go to college, as was the case with me. 

Across my 10 years working with residential, commuter and online students, a few key lessons for college freshmen emerged:

Take an Active Approach in Your Classes

College freshmen need to be ready to work. College-level courses are very different from high school classes and require much more attention and time. According to College Parent Central, the general rule of thumb regarding college studying is — and has been for a long time — that for each class students should spend approximately two to three hours of study time for each hour that they spend in class.

All this time spent attending class, studying and completing homework assignments doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Focus on getting the basics right: attend class, be on time, participate in class, complete all class assignments, dedicate regular time to studying, and keep a schedule and to-do list. Skipping class, missing an assignment, or skimping on study time can quickly lead to students feeling behind, overwhelmed, or disconnected with the material.

Proactively Seek Allies and Mentors…Before Problems Emerge

The major mistake I’ve seen so many college students make is not communicating. The complete change in environment and routine leaves many young people feeling isolated and without trusted adults to turn to for guidance.

I recommend that all students proactively seek to build relationships with their academic advisors and professors — regardless of how smoothly freshman year is progressing. Locate your professors’ offices and visit each at least three times per semester during office hours. Most schools have advisors ready to help students with their academic choices, housing, mental health, and other needs.

All of us — especially in moments of great change — need allies and mentors. University staff are student advocates and want to see students succeed. If there is a concern of any sort, students need to seek help immediately or talk to an academic advisor, professor, or counselor. Last minute issues are harder to resolve.

Connect with Campus Resources

Every college campus offers an array of opportunities and options. Thankfully, colleges have established student orientations, resource fairs, student centers and other places where students can meet resourceful staff that can help students navigate academic support, financial aid, multicultural life and much more. Institutions vary and may have different names for these offices, but essentially, they offer similar resources for all students. I encourage all freshmen to proactively connect with these offices in their first days and weeks at school.

Engage in Campus Activities and Extra-Curricular Activities

Focusing on academics should be the first priority but taking time to engage in campus activities is just as important. Even at small colleges, the range of activities is impressive — from activities throughout the year to promote cultural awareness, diversity, and healthy lifestyles, to intramural sports, clubs, voluntarism, and much more. I would recommend spending the first semester exploring these organizations and looking for the right fit. The second semester, students can think about deepening their commitment to a few activities or clubs. After freshman year, students should then explore leadership opportunities.

Seek Additional Funding Throughout College

Financing education can be a challenge for many, especially if families did not save for the rising cost of college expenses and other unexpected indirect costs. The cost of college, and the resources available to pay for it, can change over time. Many colleges — and individual departments — offer scholarships, grants, prizes, and work study arrangements to enrolled students. Each year, students should take an active role in searching for scholarships on campus and from external organizations. When I worked with students, I would recommend they search for and apply to multiple scholarships each semester. Once they get established, students should also consider an on-campus job in the library, gym, admissions center, research lab, or a myriad of other options. Part-time work can help build skills, expand networks, and provide needed income.

Enjoy, Learn, and Thrive

Above all, college is a special time. No matter your experience — online or in-person, two-year or four-year, on campus or at home — college is a wonderful time to learn, build skills, meet new people, and grow. Above all, my number one suggestion to freshmen is to enjoy themselves. College is a unique experience and one you’ll likely look back on with fondness and nostalgia. Enjoy the experience while you’re in it!

Fernando Diaz is the Chief Financial Product Officer for Illinois State Treasurer, Michael Frerichs. To learn more about the Illinois Direct 529 Plan, visit