First-Generation College Students Face Unique Challenges On Campus And Off
By JANICE PODSADA
September 18, 2010
As a 16-year-old, Wiley Dawson awoke each morning confronted by two choices: "Do I want to go to school or do something else?"
"Something else" was the route former classmates had chosen.
"They were making money selling their drugs," said Dawson, now 20, "getting everything they wanted and I was getting up every morning to go to school and working this minimum-wage job at KFC."
The fall semester of his junior year, Dawson failed all his classes at The Bridge Academy charter school in Bridgeport. "I was fighting with myself," he said.
But his late uncle's words stayed with him.
"He used to tell me that the only way to succeed in this world is with an education," Dawson said.
That path was an unknown; no one in his parents' families had attended college.
The following semester, he turned his life around.
Dawson is now a junior at Eastern Connecticut State University, president of the university's Student Government Association and a first-generation college student. Nationally, about 35 percent of all college undergraduates are first-generation students, whose parents never attended college, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Evidence suggests the percentage has risen due to the economic downturn and a lack of jobs.
Not all-first generation college students fare as well as Dawson. First-generation students are more likely to earn lower grade-point averages than their peers, more likely to struggle with balancing college and the need to work, and less likely to earn a bachelor's degree. Only 44 percent of first-generation students earn a bachelor's degree compared with 68 percent of students whose parents earned a four-year degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The lack of academic skill often is cited as the reason for the lower graduation rate of first-generation students. But just as damaging are non-academic factors, including feelings of inferiority, isolation and family and friends who discourage their aspirations.
"These students are intelligent. They have all the makings of a college graduate," said Cyrus R. Williams III, who counseled first-generation students at the University of Connecticut and the University of Florida for seven years. "But they don't' always have the support or that generational type of capital that other students possess."
Lacking family members to guide them, they press on as best they can.
"They're very vulnerable; as soon as something doesn't go right they quit and nobody in their community is going to tell them to go back and finish," said Williams, a first-generation college graduate who received his bachelor's degree from ECSU in 1989, then a master's degree and doctorate.
"It's the non-academic baggage that trips them up," said Williams. "A lot of first-generation students I counseled at UConn didn't want to go home because their friends and peers would call them names."
These students are sometimes viewed suspiciously by peers who aren't in college or accused of acting "superior," straining longstanding friendships and ties to the community.
"Sometimes it's jealously. They're not happy with your having a future," he said.
"I'm in college and it doesn't make me better than my friends," said Armando Jimenez, a UConn sophomore and a first-generation college student who grew up in Hartford. "When you go back home, there's a huge difference. You know all the slang terms, but your thought process has changed. A lot of peers start saying you're acting differently."
Family members may view first-generation students as being selfish for attending college, instead of working and contributing financially to the family. "They're breaking family traditions by attending college," Williams said.
As a result, some college applicants may keep their aspirations a secret from family members, said Bidya Ranjeet, director of Student Support Services at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
"During the recruiting process, you call the home and speak to the parents and they don't even know their child has applied or they say, 'He's not going to college, he's going to work'," Ranjeet said.
And once the prospective student gains admission, explaining their educational goals to family members can be frustrating.
"Unless you're in one of the professional schools like nursing or business, family members can't grasp the value of pursuing a degree in sociology or political science," said Leo Lachut, a counselor at the University of Connecticut and a first-generation college student.
Unfortunately, some families and even some first-generation college students view college as 13th grade, a continuation of high school, and pile on the chores and obligations.
Trying to escape the pressure by living on campus can help first-generation students make the transition to college life, but even so they may be unable to escape the daily drama happening at home.
One of the biggest distractions can be a student's cellphone. The family crisis arrives in the form of daily phone calls, Williams said. Parents and siblings are calling to say, "Mom doesn't have money for rent, sister needs money for clothes."
It's not unusual for parents to ask a son or daughter to hand over a portion of their financial aid money. At UConn, about $1,500 per semester goes directly to a full-need student for books and other living expenses.
"Mom or Dad may say, 'You take the $500 for books, but we need the $1,000 at home'," Lachut said, despite the fact that the loan is intended to help the student, not the student's family.
The pressures take their toll on many first-generation students.
"These are often quiet students who quietly leave at the end of the first semester," said Williams. "It has nothing to do with their intelligence."
Making The Grade
Justina Manko, 19, a sophomore at ECSU, began thinking about attending college when she was a sixth-grader attending UConn basketball games with her father.
"I always wanted to be on the UConn women's basketball team," she said.
Manko didn't go that route, but now her goal is "to better myself, be successful and have pride of being the first in my family to go to college."
"You're on your own when you're in college," said Manko, whose parents support her goals. "You have to motivate yourself."
Her solution has been to find a group of like-minded friends. "Better to hang out with the nerds than the drinkers. Yeah, you'll get bored, but you'll do better in school. Having just a few friends is better than a whole bunch."
The strategy seems to work as well today as it did 40 years ago.
David Engelson, the executive director of Hockanum Valley Community Council, attended ECSU in the 1970s as a first-generation college student and took the same tack.
"Even if the college is big, you can still find a group of people that have the same aspirations and goal," he said. "The idea of having a family in college is very important — I'm talking about a "student family" — students in your class, counselors, staff."
The key to success is for students to get involved in campus activities, counselors say.
"When I have a student who's stumbling, I ask them what they're involved in," said Lachut. "If they say 'nothing or I'm homesick.' I'll tell them: We have hundreds of clubs. Start making Storrs part of your new home."
Students involved in on-campus clubs and organizations tend to have a higher grade-point average than students who don't participate, according to several recent studies.
"You've got to get involved to be successful," said Dawson, who was elected president of ECSU's Student Government Association last spring. "And you have to ask for help. There are professionals that are here to help you, to push you to graduate."
At UConn, Jimenez helped co-found a campus organization dedicated to helping low-income and first-generation students.
"We have freshman come in from urban areas or first-generation students," he said. "We show them how to deal with adversity, how to take notes, how to study."
When first-generation students succeed, the payback is tenfold, college counselors say.
"We don't just graduate one college student," said Lachut, "We've created a network. If that student has younger brothers or sisters, they'll go to college. We've just changed a whole family."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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