female student raising hand in class

Making my first connection with a professor was one of the most important events in my undergraduate studies. While it can be a difficult task, especially for an introvert (such as myself), it can lead to connections and guiding ideas for your future career. My first experience with this was at Inver Hills Community College, in my biology class. Going against my introvert instincts, I placed myself at the front of the class. By focusing on the lectures, I began to understand my professor’s deep interest in biology, science, and her academic background. Halfway through the semester, I finally approached the professor and asked her questions about her field of study—questions I was afraid to ask in the class. To my surprise, she was very open to answering my questions and even went further to give suggestions on resources. I gradually asked more questions after class that helped me complete the class with an A, and also began to solidify my interest in a career in biology.

"My performance in the class, combined with my conversations with the professor, took me to the next level academically."

After the semester, I was surprised and grateful when my professor provided a letter of recommendation for me to become a peer tutor for Inver Hills! My performance in the class, combined with my conversations with the professor, took me to the next level academically and helped me along my path toward becoming a first-generation college graduate. Besides the benefit of helping others as a peer tutor, I had the great opportunity to expand my connections with other professors in the school. With each new connection at Inver Hills Community College, I was able to advance not only my academic goals, but also develop my social and career when I transferred to the U of M.

Connecting with professors at the U of M was different than Inver Hills Community College, mostly due to the size of the class. Transitioning to the U of M brought its own unique difficulties with connecting with the professors, especially as a first-generation college student. Feeling that I should not be here and out of place with classmates—the imposter’s syndrome— I once again found it difficult to talk with my professors. I watched as other classmates stayed behind and made connections, but I always felt reluctant, and just moved on to my next class. I also had the sense of not wanting to bother the professor with any of my questions. However, after reflecting on the support I received from my professor at Inver Hills, I came to the realization that I was at the U of M and belonged at the U of M. I began to look for opportunities to talk with my professors.

students studying in library

Using the same approach I took when I connected with my first Inver Hills professor, I listened for information that would help me better understand my professors’ academic background by searching the U of M website for their research and publications. The U of M is a research institute and most professors are also researchers with specific fields. By understanding their academic studies, you will gain further insight into the concepts of your class and the careers that you may encounter. I was able to connect with not only one, but several professors in my undergraduate courses. These connections not only furthered my understanding of what I was studying, but also helped me advance in my career in the biotech industry. Most importantly, my connections with the professors gave me a path to create my Inter-College Program degree at the U of M. This is an individualized degree program at the U of M that let me choose two concentrations, in biology and society.

"I came to the realization that I was at the U of M and belonged at the U of M.

Overall, connecting with your professor can be difficult, especially if you are a first-generation college student. However, once you get over that difficulty, the rewards can be large! By making connections, I was able to gain experience in leadership, advance my academic studies, and expand my career skills. This can be done by any of us, and my recommendation is to put yourself out there and get to know your professor. You never know, someday that professor could be you!

* This post was guest written by Shawn Davison. Shawn currently works as a research associate at Calyxt, a consumer-centric, food and agriculture-focused company, and is a first generation college student.

Read more First-Gen Voices blog posts.