Excerpt from First in the Family: Advice about College from First-Generation Students

Supporting first-generation students not only to get into college but stay and finish interrupts negative generational patterns in powerful ways. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 22% of postsecondary students are the first in their families to go to college. In many Essential schools, that percentage is far greater. Though first-generation college students are at greater risk for dropping out, those that do attain higher education degrees succeed financially on par with their peers that came from college- going families.

First-generation college-goers’ concerns and needs are not always completely congruent with those of students more fully immersed in a college-going culture. In response, Next Generation Press (the publishing arm of What Kids Can Do, an advocacy organization for youth action and accomplishment), with support from the Lumina Foundation, has recently released an essential 88-page book for providing such support: Part 1 of First in the Family: Advice About College from First-Generation Students.

Featuring the experiences of 13 first-generation college students, related largely in their own voices, First in the Family focuses on what will help first-generation students embark on their higher education careers and stay in school. The students, representing many who are the first in their families to attend college, went onto a range of higher education settings, from community colleges to highly selective universities. The students describe the obstacles they faced and support from which they benefited as they made their way to higher education speaking clearly and directly to other students contemplating similar paths.

First in the Family covers significant ground, with chapters focusing on first-generation students’ right to attend college, finding information about college, creating and using support networks, confronting and defying stereotypes and low expectations, remaining balanced in the intense process of transitioning to higher education, and staying organized and focused throughout. Also included are a planning checklist for staying on course throughout high school and a resource list.

Horace presents the first chapter of First in the Family, “You Are College Material,” with thanks to author Kathleen Cushman and the contributing students whose experiences provide wisdom, insight, and authentic “I’ve been there” support for high school students as early as ninth grade. A second volume, aimed at supporting college students through graduation, is due in fall 2006.
–Jill Davidson

Source cited: National Center for Educational Statistics, First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Brief Portrait, available online at http://nces.ed.gov/ssbr/pages/postsec.asp

You are college material: Believe in your right to college.
Hazel Janssen thinks of herself as an artist. “I love to act,” she says, “but I also knit, I sew, I shoot and edit movies.” When she found herself crammed into the over-crowded classrooms of a huge Denver high school, she fell behind in her work and lost interest in school. “I need a lot of attention,” she says. “If I have questions, I need them answered. And I work better at my own pace.” At sixteen, she dropped out and moved in with her boyfriend. She decided not to worry about college. Maybe she didn’t even need it, since she wanted to live the artist’s life. Her father and mother did not have college degrees, so why should she?

Six months later, Hazel was having second thoughts. College might help her find a job that paid more—or maybe she could learn acting or directing in a college program. But she had another worry. At this point, what college would want her? Was she even “college material”?

All around the country, young people ask themselves that question, especially those whose parents did not go to college. Not all of these students choose to drop out of high school, as Hazel did. They might get their diplomas and then look for work instead of aiming for higher education. They might stick it out in high school, but notice that nobody ever mentions college as an option for them. You may already be planning your way to college. But if not—if your situation sounds like any of these—you could be asking yourself, “Am I college material?” In the pages that follow, other first-generation students tell how they said yes to that question.

They describe how they overcame obstacles and made it to college. These ideas, strategies, and encouragements from those who have accomplished the journey can help you get there, too.

Before you decide not to go to college, picture yourself there.
“A little country and a little ghetto” is how Stephen Torres describes his upbringing. He was raised on seven acres, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, and cousins in a somewhat rural black and Latino neighborhood near Austin, Texas. His father, a barber, did not have much interest in college, but his mother always wished that the pressures of parenthood had not ended her education.

Early in his teens, while watching a University of Texas baseball game on television, Stephen realized there was a university just fifteen minutes from his home. An athlete himself, he began imagining himself there.

College was this abstract thing that people talked about, but seeing it on TV, with the same skyline as my city…I was like, “Wow, maybe I can attend that university.” –Stephen

Up until then, he had known that his parents expected him to go on to college. They were always pushing him to do well in school. But from then on, when he thought about college, it was a real place. When he had the choice in his senior year of high school, he chose to apply to the school near home, with the skyline he knew so well.

Out in Oakland, California, Niema Jordan knew that plenty of universities lay within striking distance of the gritty streets of home. But she and her high school friends could not quite picture themselves there, until the teacher of her leadership class took a group to visit the college he had attended himself. Only an hour from her high school, its leafy green campus seemed a world away.

Stepping foot on a college campus as a high school student puts you that much closer. You can only go after things that you know about, that’s the thing. You go visit a college, and maybe you don’t like that college. But you find something there that’s interesting, that you could possibly get into. Maybe they have a publication on campus that you thought was really cool. Maybe they have a nice hangout spot. It makes it more tangible, something that you can grasp and build on. It shows you college is attainable. You’re not enrolled, but you’re here on the campus, which means you can get there, you know what I’m saying? –Niema

Across the Bay Bridge from Niema, in San Francisco, Naixing Lei was still struggling to learn the English language. He came from China at the age of sixteen with his parents, who had been farmers there. As a junior in high school, looking for a way to work off stress, he started going with Chinese-speaking classmates to play tennis on the courts of a nearby community college.

At that point I did not think about going into college. The only purpose I went to the college for was to play tennis. But actually I made a couple friends. One is a girl and the other one is a boy, and they are Chinese. They go here, they are college students, and they know more English than I did. By taking that chance, you are able to meet people at the college. Then they will serve you as a bridge. –Naixing

Two years later, Naixing still plays tennis on those community college courts, but now he is studying for his own degree there, and planning to go further after that.

It’s not too late for anybody to go to college.
Attending high school in rural Indiana, John Berry did not work very hard at his classes. Almost no one else went to college from his school.

I came from a high school where you did the bare minimum. That was basically the expectation. The overwhelming majority of my classmates’ parents farmed, so that’s what a lot of them went on to do. Most of my friends either went into the military or started their families, worked in restaurants or grocery stores, got factory jobs.

I worked in a factory making door panels for Subarus, and then I moved to the city and worked as the night kitchen manager for a restaurant. When they closed the place, I ended up doing maintenance for a moving company. It just wasn’t what I was meant to do. I’m not mechanically inclined at all. I have to think which way to turn a screwdriver to tighten a screw!

I thought, “This is not the job for me,” but I had bills to pay. I had two options: I could either go back to school or move back with my family. I always knew in the back of my mind that the only real way I’m ever going to make anything of myself is to go back to school. –John

John was already 25 years old when he applied for college, and he chose a commuter college (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne) where the average student is 24 years old. Once enrolled, he kept working at a restaurant job, and took a full course load as well. He plans to go on for a graduate degree, and wants some day to teach history at a university. “College is what you make of it,” he says. “You can do anything if you make time for it.”

If you aren’t already on the college track, you can start over from where you find yourself now.
While Jackie Comminello studied to be a dental hygienist at the Community College of Denver, she also helped her boyfriend reconsider his college plans. She knew that, like her, he needed support to believe he could succeed.

I met him in ninth grade, and he wasn’t into school. So he ended up getting his GED ‘cause he didn’t graduate, and then I tried to talk him into going to community college here. He struggled with the same exact things that I did: “What if I’m not up to the level?” or “I don’t think I’m smart enough.” I’m like, “No, you’re smart enough, I know it, I believe in you!” Finally, I went down there and applied with him. He got a scholarship, and he’s been going to school ever since. He’s so smart and I’m so proud of him. He did the remedial classes first, ‘cause he tested at a lower level, so he was working on that for a long time. Now he’s working on his last prerequisites to go for a two-year fire sciences program, and then he’ll have his Associates degree. He keeps getting better and better at school. –Jackie

Once you start down the road, you can define yourself as “on the way to college.”
Aileen Rosario moved with her family to Paterson, New Jersey when she was sixteen. Both of her parents are Dominican immigrants with no English, and they worried about bad influences in the Bronx, where they had been living. They had reasons to worry. Most of Aileen’s six siblings dropped out of high school; three young nephews now live with her and her mother, while her brother serves time in jail.

Aileen dreamed of a career in law, though she had only a vague sense of how to achieve that. Steered into low-level classes at a huge and overcrowded school, she first aimed only to get her high school diploma. She received good grades, Aileen recalled, but her senior-year counselor told her, “Forget about college.”

Her luck picked up in twelfth grade, when a business-oriented class helped her find an after-school internship with a community organization. Seeing her strengths, her supervisors there urged her on. “They really pushed me,” Aileen said. They helped her research schools and guided her through the process of college visits and application. Two years later, she was still working there—while studying for her Associates degree.

Once Aileen chose to define herself in her family as “the one who’s going to college,” doors opened up for her. Even the obstacles she faced gave her new pride and energy.

My identity in my house, ‘cause I come from a big family, is “the one that goes to college, the one that’s trying to do something for her life.” My brother’s the one with the three kids who live with us, my other sister’s the single mother raising two kids on her own, my other sister’s only nineteen with a one-year-old son, and the other one is working in food services, the same job like my mother. Everybody looks at me, they’re proud of me. Just to know that somebody is proud of you makes you even reach for more. –Aileen

The motivation to go to college comes from inside you.

I had friends but they did not speak a single word about going to college. I realized by myself, by feeling. –Naixing

Even if your family or friends have no idea how to help you, choosing to aim for college will make a difference in your relationship. People who have more knowledge and resources than you will notice, too, and may want to help. Eric Polk spent his high school years in East Nashville, Tennessee, at a high school ranked at the bottom of the city’s list. Supported by AFDC, he lived with his mother and younger sister in the poorest section of town. His friends on the streets knew of his ambitions, and they steered him away from trouble so he could aim higher. He let people know the future he wanted, and that helped him in the long run.

Education was going to be my ticket out of here. The first train that comes to Nashville, I’m getting on it. I won’t be defined by a statistic, like “how people who grow up in this area are more likely to turn out.” Not me! I won’t! –Eric

Niema’s mother worked as a security guard and her stepfather drove a bus; they had other children to care for, so their time and energy ran short. As Niema made her way toward college, she decided to treat that as a positive thing.

I didn’t have anybody to walk me through the process of getting into college, so I pretty much have that “go-for-it, figure things out on your own” attitude. It prepares you for college. Now that I’m here, I think I have the easiest time picking out classes out of all my friends who go here. –Niema

Put yourself in the picture and imagine the satisfaction.
As a student at Wake Forest University, Eric still recalls the thrill of the day his college acceptance letter came.

So my mom kind of nonchalantly hands me the envelope and she walks upstairs…I was tearing it slowly and looking at it. I didn’t even read the whole thing, I just read “Congratulations,” and I screamed. My mom turned right around and basically fell down the stairs—we hugged and we cried, and—emotions breakdown—I got in! I mean that was the longest haul of my life! I called everybody in my cell phone book. To hear people’s reactions on the line, screaming, “He got in, he got in!” The whole neighborhood: “What? Eric’s going to Wake Forest!” Everybody knew that I’d been waiting for this, so it was like, “We knew it, we knew it, he got in!” My friends threw me a party. They were like, “Oh dude, we are going out this weekend.” And of course, my teacher Miss Q., I had to call and tell her, and she cried. By morning everybody in school knew about it. They made a huge announcement over the intercom, “Congratulations to Eric Polk, the first Stratford student ever to get accepted to Wake Forest University!” –Eric

All over the country, students like Eric—and like you—are breaking new ground, holding the title as the first in the family to go to college. The first step to that position is thinking of yourself as college material: believing you are capable, and knowing you deserve the chance.

Copies of First in the Family ($8.95) can be ordered at www.whatkidscando.org/NGP/firstinthefamily.html. Deep discounts are available for bulk orders.

Kathleen Cushman, who edited Horace from 1986 through 2001, now serves on CES National’s Executive Board.