According to the statistics I should not be a college graduate. I am a first generation college student and like my peers, I come from a low income household and I’m a minority. According to a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study, I had only a 24% chance of making it into the doors of a university*.
Although I was on the college track in high school and took AP classes in English, Biology, and History, I lacked the math skills needed for adequate college prep. Being academically unprepared for college I, like many of my peers, had to take remedial math courses, for which I paid full tuition, but received no credit. 55% [of first generation college students] take some form of remedial courses during college, compared to only 27% of students whose parents graduated from college*. In math the gap is even greater, with 40% of first generation college students taking remedial math courses compared to 16% of students with degreed parents*.
Once there, the odds were that I would not finish. Every year, roughly four in ten of first generation college students leave school without a degree*. For college students whose parents are college graduates, 68% will complete a bachelor’s degree*. I am one of the few first generation college students who successfully obtained a college degree after leaving high school.
But it’s more than academics. As first generation college students, most of us are unprepared for the significant life change that college offers. Often we face deeply engrained beliefs that have been re-enforced for years: college is too expensive, it’s for other people, friends and family say you think you’re better than everyone else, why isn’t working the same job as your parents and friends good enough for you.
Students from low income homes are often expected to contribute to the family household either financially or by providing care for younger siblings and housekeeping while parents work. Not living up to familial expectations can induce guilt in the student who chooses college. Further, families of these aspiring scholars may not know how to support their child’s choice, perhaps even perceiving it as selfish and not aiding the immediate family’s needs. Planning for college correctly is a lot of work and can overwhelm any student and parent. For those parents who have never graduated from college the process seems daunting and mysterious.
It’s a difficult place in life to be first. I was the first in my family to go to college. I was also the first to leave home to pursue something bigger than working in an oil refinery or as a checker at the grocery store, careers that are honorable and provide a decent living, but not the living that I wanted for myself. And though I didn’t know how to fill out the Financial Aid Application and didn’t know to ask for help with the essay questions on college applications, I made it through the process. I was one of the lucky ones when I entered Southwest Texas State University for my freshman year of college.
I did not make it a second year. A low GPA and lack of financial aid and other resources led me back home to the community college where I might have been trapped in the remedial course cycle that plagues so many first generation college students. “1 in 3 first generation students earned ten fewer course credits their first year of college” and maintained a lower GPA than their counter parts*.
But this is where the statistics tell a different story for first generation college students. If we get to the door and make it all the way through, if we can overcome low test scores and GPAs, if we can somehow balance what is often the two conflicting cultures of home and school, and commit to making it across the stage no matter what, then first generation college students are just as successful in life as their counterparts. They are equally likely to attend graduate school and are just as capable of getting a “good” job and becoming contributing members of society.
I made it through the doors. I kept going back even when it felt like I might never reach my goal. It took me ten years and five schools in three states, but I finally completed my Bachelor’s degree. One year later I returned to get my Master’s degree just to make sure I was covered. I beat the odds and I have that piece of paper hanging on my wall to prove it.
I believe that as first generation college students, we are better prepared for life than our counterparts. Because we persist in spite of the obstacles, we have something more valuable than a piece of paper. We have the knowledge that we can do anything. We understand the value of hard work and persistence, we are the first, but we won’t be the last. In my household there is no longer any such thing as a cycle.
Paige Elijah Kelly, College Readiness Program Coordinator
* Chen, X. (2005). First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcript (NCES 2005–171). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Though born under the sign of Aquarius, I am not a natural water baby. Truth be told, I’m happiest floating in the shallow end of the pool. So spending spring break in Bonaire, a premiere diving and snorkeling destination, seemed an unlikely vacation choice. On the other hand, my best vacations have always been about embracing the adventure. I was excited to be learning something new.
Dear friends Patrick and Hettie, both experienced snorkelers, were patient and supportive coaches. They helped me get into my gear and gave thorough instructions on navigating through the coral without getting hurt or causing damage. Patrick, sensing my rising anxiety, stayed with me and encouraged me as I tried to learn how to breathe underwater. I was hyperventilating through the snorkel and fretting over each drop of water that seeped into my mask. I popped my head up every few seconds, trying to orient to the shoreline. I am not a strong swimmer and feared getting pulled into deep water. This was not fun.
Perhaps because I doubted my competence to make it back to shore on my own, I stuck with it. I willed myself to focus on the spectacular landscape and brilliant fishes that pulsated below the water’s glassy surface. And then I got it. My breathing slowed. My fins, if still awkward, were beginning to feel like an extension of my feet. And though not yet ready to try a free dive, I was snorkeling.
I’ll be back in the classroom coaching my three students this week. I want to tell them about what I learned on my spring break: that trying to do something new and hard takes courage; that having a coach who cares about your success helps a lot; and that when you stick with it and keep practicing, you will get better. And it might just turn out to be fun after all!
Pat Abrams, Executive Director
The Urban Institute estimates that 65,000 undocumented students graduate from a U.S. high school each year. Thousands of these students are academically eligible to attend college. The 2000 US Census suggests that for every 100 Latino students that enter elementary school, 46 will graduate from high school, eight will earn a Bachelor’s degree, two will earn a graduate or professional degree and less than one will earn a doctorate (Undocumented Students’ Access to College: The American Dream Denied, Maria Lucia Chavez, Mayra Soriano and Paz Oliverez). The challenges faced by undocumented students who are eligible and willing to pursue higher education are staggering. They face obstacles with college admissions and tuitions policies, as well as federal, state and institutional financial aid access. Yet access to continuing education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Read more about the challenges faced by this population here.
Pat Abrams, Executive Director