The Reality of College Doesn’t Match the Dream for Most First Generation Students

Posted By Monica Harvin on February 16, 2016 at 2:16 pm
The Reality of College Doesn’t Match the Dream for Most First Generation Students

With calls for increased diversity echoing across the nation’s universities, first generation college students are teaching universities to look beyond racial and ethnic diversity. First generation college goers come from very diverse backgrounds, yet share a lot of the same challenges in navigating and succeeding in the university.

According to data analyzed by the Council of Independent Colleges, about a third of all undergraduate students are first generation, and three out of five do not complete a degree or credential in six years. First gens are also much more diverse than non-first generation students, with larger shares being Hispanic, African-American, and students age 30 and above. In 2012, two-thirds of first gen students attended community college or a for-profit institution, with more of them enrolled part-time in comparison to non-first-generation students.

What obstacles do first generation college goers face?

To gain additional insight into the challenges faced by students who are first in their families to go to college, GoodCall spoke with Lynne Martin, executive director of Students Rising Above, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that focuses on helping low-income, first-generation students get into college, graduate, and begin their professional careers.

Martin tells GoodCall that for many of the students her organization serves, going to college is a dream come true, but once they get there, “the reality of college doesn’t match the dream.” Students experience culture shock, they may struggle academically for the first time in their lives, may not have pocket change to go out on like their peers, and often begin to feel like they don’t belong. At the same time, first gen students don’t have the same family support as peers with parents and family members who attended college, which means they may not know how to access different resources on campus.

According to recent research by Anthony Abraham Jack of Harvard University, navigating college culture, and particularly elite culture, is something that takes time for first generation students coming from lower economic backgrounds. Low-income students who’ve come from public schools are less at ease when engaging with authority figures like professors and university staff. This means they may be less comfortable reaching out for help at the university or at building academic relationships that will help them succeed in college.

What’s more, for some first gens, their families are not excited about them going to college. Some of these students have had to grow up quickly, care for their families, and assume additional responsibilities beyond their years, and because of this, “they’re often the glue that holds the family together,” says Martin. First generation, low-income students may face pressures from their families to leave college to fill in the gap left behind, to help the family out economically, or take care of a newly born brother or sister, Martin explains.

Mentoring for first gens, expanding college and career perspectives

SRA began as a scholarship program, but they quickly learned that the needs of first generation, low-income college students went far beyond just going to college. This is why they developed an extensive mentoring program to support the students they work with to push through the difficult moments and challenges they come up against as first gens. Martin shares that they’ve now reached a 90 percent graduation rate and 85% of their graduates are in a career ladder job.

She explains that SRA’s success is tied to teaching these students how to succeed in college, find support networks, gain access to internships, and learn both professional and soft skills that will help them once they graduate.

In her experience, Martin says that nearly all of the first gen, low-income students she’s worked with want to go to college to be a doctor, nurse, lawyer, or teacher. These are the careers they associate with going to college. They don’t talk about STEM fields, accounting, banking, or marketing, for example.

These students have much narrower perspectives about the college and career paths that are really out there, in comparison to the broader career perspectives held by more privileged students, explains Martin. Though there’s no prescribed path for students, she points out that 40 percent of the students working with SRA’s advisors and career mentors have decided to declare STEM majors.

First generation students gain ground in the Ivy Leagues

The notion of a shared experience unique to first gens gained national momentum last year when the first generation student movement across Ivy League campuses was featured in the New York Times. This represented an important step in shaping a first generation identity, adding socio-economic diversity as an important part of university diversity initiatives, and continuing the push for universities to respond to the needs of these diverse students.

Nélida Garcia participated in the movement to found the Harvard First Generation Student Union. She tells GoodCall, “I hadn’t explicitly thought about my first gen identity as distinct from my Latina identity. At Harvard, I found first gen support within the Latino community, so I never felt the need to disentangle those identities. However, when having dinner with other first gens of different backgrounds and varying degrees of involvement in the Harvard student of color community, we realized the need to have a movement that explicitly centered around the experience of being the first in your family to go to college.”

“[W]e finally have a phrase that encompasses our identity: first gen. That phrase has really gained momentum in the past decade, but prior to that, many first gen students didn’t have a word to describe their identity,” she goes on to say. “Because that identity is not always easy to read on others, it made it difficult for first gens to find their community… [and] I think that across many schools, we’re finally reaching that critical mass of first gen and low-income students needed to spur the campus into action.”

This is why schools like Stanford now have the Office of Diversity and First Generation Programs created in 2011. And a number of the Ivy Leagues have created specific support and mentoring programs for first generation students.

“I think that the first gen experience at public schools overlaps with the first gen experience at highly selective, private schools: learning how to navigate the unfamiliar world of higher education is a universal experience for all of us… [and] while there may be a higher percentage of first gens at public universities, they may not have as much access to professional networks and resources as students at elite schools,” explains Garcia, pointing to the added complexities that exist for the bulk of first gen students across the nation’s universities and colleges.

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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