I graduated from Detroit’s most prestigious high school. I still struggled when I got to college.

For all the talk about whether college is worth its potentially crushing costs, graduating from college remains one of the only vehicles that reliably propels Americans out of poverty. Yet just half of low-income college students earn degrees in six years. For students from struggling cities, the odds are even steeper. Are they ready for college? And are colleges ready to help them graduate? An ongoing series from Detroit and Newark in the 2019-20 school year examines those questions.

My first year of college was a rough ride.

I had applied to Northwestern University pretty late in the game, but even though I attended Detroit’s most prestigious high school, I was sure I wouldn’t get in. After all, the acceptance rate was just 12%. But I saw no harm in trying, especially because my school had given me free application vouchers. Then I was accepted, and after a visit, some phone calls, and some very hefty scholarships, to my surprise I found that I was headed to one of the country’s most selective universities.

That turn of events was surprising enough. But nothing could have prepared me for what would happen once I got on campus.

You see, I’ve always been told I was smart. People in my neighborhood knew me as “the girl with the book,” and my friends told me I was weird because I liked to learn. I was always the teacher’s pet, and all of my teachers promised me I’d do great things in life. So walking into Northwestern, I was pretty confident that I’d do a great job, and have a good time in the process.

And for the first few weeks of school, that’s what seemed to be happening. I enjoyed my classes: an African American studies course, an introductory Spanish course, a writing and reporting class, and a sociology class focusing on cities. My first small assignments, long lectures, and short quizzes weren’t easy, but I found the work manageable. I began joining clubs and making friends.

But then, at just week five. I had my first round of midterms.

Exams may be scary for all college students, but I’m positive that nothing compares to the fear, anxiety, and overall disappointment I felt realizing that I hadn’t been prepared by my high school to be there. While I thought I understood most of the readings, study guide questions showed me I had not. Every time I thought I had studied the vocabulary and verb tenses enough, I would fail the small quizzes I gave to myself. And writing my first college essay? Let’s just say that without my school’s writing center, it would not have happened. It was frustrating, but even more than that — it was paralyzing.

All of a sudden I felt stupid. While others could still party and have a good time, I locked myself in my room, crying, trying to study, and mostly praying. All the information thrown at me confused me, and I didn’t have the first clue how to study. In my high school, I never really had to try. I gained no study skills, and rarely had to think critically. But at Northwestern, critical thinking was the only way to pass. I had to understand the readings enough to take them a step further and prove some sort of argument. I needed to be able to think through all the material and answer questions we may have never discussed. It was more than preparing for one exam at the end of my junior year — I had to actually learn and be able to use that knowledge now.

So, I studied. Or at least tried to. I was basically mindlessly doing quizlets, constantly rereading my textbooks and essays, and depending on our writing coaches for all my essay needs. I struggled to keep up with the pace and I constantly wanted to quit.

It wasn’t fair to me that I was struggling while everyone around me thrived because of the ways they had been set up for success.

Some of my classmates shared with me that they had had similar assignments when they were in high school. Then I would think about how easily I succeeded in high school, and wish that I had been given the opportunity to go to a school that challenged me to actually learn — not just to memorize what would be needed to pass the next test.

I also thought back to how hard it was for my college counselor to help me submit my applications, much less support me in my transition to college. In Detroit as in any cities, college counselors often play other roles that make them hard to access for actual college concerns. My own counselor had so many students that I actually ended up basically writing my own letter of recommendation.

And I thought about how no one had taken the time to have the tough conversation with me and my classmates about what we would find when we got to college. College is different. It’s nothing like high school, and it’s nothing like being in Detroit. Someone could have prepared me for the culture, and overall, shock of being in a new place that wasn’t created for people like me, but that never happened.

After my disappointing midterm grades, I realized that I would have to figure out a strategy on my own. I had to teach myself how to study, learn my own learning style, and consistently focus on reading in between the lines to succeed. I ended my quarter on a strong note, but only because of my hard work and the access to outside help that I had.

Still, I couldn’t help but think — what about those who don’t have what I do? Those who went to high schools with fewer resources than mine. Those who don’t have parents to call that can help them edit essays. Those who have to provide for their families and can’t focus solely on school. The ones who attend colleges where they don’t have access to dedicated counselors. Or those who might not have the skills to reach out for what they need, or who might have learned that asking for help wouldn’t yield any.

Michigan is facing a federal lawsuit filed by advocates who say the state has deprived Detroit children of their right to literacy. I learned to read, but my experience making the transition to college revealed to me that Detroit students will always have to work twice as hard just to be average. I went to the best high school in the city and didn’t know that until it was almost too late.

Imani Harris is a student at Northwestern University. In 2019, she was a summer intern in Chalkbeat’s Detroit bureau. A version of this piece originally appeared on the Detroit Students Blog.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.