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The First-Generation College Student Experience

Student and teachers work in a physics lab at Central Piedmont Community College. Many first-generation students are low-income, and community colleges are the most affordable option for working towards a degree.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Flickr Creative Commons

When Judith Rosales visited UNC-Chapel Hill as a high school student through the Scholars' Latino Initiative program, she liked what she saw, but didn't quite know if there was a place for her at any college or university.

"I was never very confident that I would be able to go to was really intimidating," Rosales told Frank Stasio of WUNC's The State of Things. 

Ricky Ruvio, an adviser from the College Advising Corps in Lenoir, North Carolina, told Stasio that that fear is very common among potential first-generation college students like Rosales. First-generation college students are students who are the first in their families to attend college.

"One of the anxieties is that they feel they don't belong at a college or university," Ruvio said. Ruvio would know, being a first-generation college student himself.

Neither of Rosales' parents had gone to college. Rosales' parents grew up in El Salvador and both left school by the fourth grade to help support their families. When they brought Rosales to the U.S., she was nine years old, and their plans for her future didn't include higher education.

I went through a lot of insecurities...doubting myself [...] It was hard because my parents didn't understand what I was going through—First-generation college student Judith Rosales

"My parents’ thoughts were 'learn English, get your high school diploma at most, and help us pay the bills,'" Rosales said.

Rosales developed different aspirations, partly because of encouragement from her teachers. Ruvio said that sometimes it takes a little push from teachers and counselors to convince students that they are college material. He works with school counselors to encourage high school students to apply to college and helps them with the application process.

"What I like to focus on are these minor affirmations," Ruvio said. "I sit down with a student and I say 'Hey, you have a such-and-such GPA and a such-and-such test score...You are college-ready.'"

Ruvio said that just hearing these words can make potential first-generation college students ready to apply.

"A conversation of 'I can't, and I don't know how to' becomes a conversation of 'I can, I want to, now how do I get there?'" Ruvio said.

By her senior year, Rosales was sure she wanted to go on to higher education, but didn't know how she could pay for it. Ruvio explained that that’s an anxiety that stops many would-be first-generation college students from following through with the admissions process.

"To be honest the biggest anxiety is the cost," he said. "I help them by telling them that financial aid is available if you need it, that scholarships are available if you need it."

Every college at a college fair will say, 'We have the best program,' but they need to answer why their program is one of the best—UNC-Wilmington Admissions Director Hannah Brown

Hannah Brown, senior assistant director of admissions at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, told Stasio that her university is working to keep costs down for students, and to work with first-generation college students on the application process, sometimes even giving them more time to complete certain requirements if they need it.

If applicants don't make the cut on the first try, Brown said she encourages them to apply to community colleges, and transfer to the university a year or two later. Forty-five percent of students that started school last fall at UNC-Wilmington, were transfer students, Brown said.

Rosales' situation was especially difficult because she is undocumented. That means she isn't eligible for federal financial aid.

"Sometimes it would make me really sad because I would think, 'I'm not going to be able to make it here [to college],'" she said.

Rosales applied for the Golden Door scholarship, a scholarship specifically for undocumented students, and got a full ride to Davidson College. But even though Rosales conquered the challenges of getting into college, she found another set of difficulties once she got to campus.

"I was not prepared for how tough it was going to be," Rosales said. The rigorous coursework was a big adjustment for her in her freshman year. Then there was the fact that as a first-generation college student, Rosales sometimes felt out of place.

"I went through a lot of insecurities...a lot of doubting myself...I knew that a lot of students around me had come from top achieving schools," she said.

While many students have college-educated older siblings or parents to talk to about the academic and social stresses of college life, Rosales said her family couldn't support her in that way.

"My parents didn't understand what I was going through...they really tried but they couldn't know what was going on."

In fact, Rosales said that arguments often erupted over her new responsibilities as a student.

"My parents really believe in being with the family," she said. "Sometimes I have to excuse myself to do homework...and there were a lot of arguments."

Cynthia Demetriou, director of Undergraduate Retention at UNC-Chapel Hill, told Stasio that the shock of the course load, lack of self-confidence and feeling out of place are common problems among many first-generation college students that lead many to drop out.

"Being from a low-income family or a first-generation college student are some of the strongest predictors of failure to persist at the university," Demetriou said.

Demetriou said the retention office found that first-generation students have to find that the culture of the university is supportive of the student and his or her family in order to stay.

"Carolina is a place that is steeped in cultural tradition," Demetriou said. "It increases the sense of belonging and connection to the university, but it could also serve as a barrier to first-generation students."

Demetriou said Carolina Firsts, a program for first-generation college students at UNC-Chapel Hill, tries to make students more comfortable with Carolina traditions by explaining the history behind them and inviting first-generation students and sometimes their families to participate.

Gabby McCutchen, assistant dean at Durham Technical Community College told Stasio that her institution has a class specifically designed to help students adjust to college life.

"We introduce students to the language and cultural norms of higher education. What is a GPA and why does it matter?  What does a transcript look like? What your transcript says about you? How do you get financial aid, and how do you keep it?" McCutchen said.

Like Ruvio, McCutchen knows firsthand the difficulties of being first-generation. She said she shares her personal story with her students to put them at ease and encourages them to seek out help from faculty when they need it.

"I made some bad decisions about what my major should be," McCutchen said. "I was very intimidated to go and speak to my professors during offices hours, and I didn't understand how advising worked."

Advising has been crucial for Rosales' adjustment to college. Now in her second year at Davidson, both she and her parents are getting used to the changes college life has brought. Rosales said the close network of professors has been her main support system.

"I tell them everything, not just the classwork, but also the personal life stuff because they're very helpful. They're often able to lead me to the right people," she said.

Now Rosales has her eyes on the next big challenge: getting into a physician's assistant program as an undocumented student. Many PA programs, Rosales said, have told her they don't accept undocumented students.

"I have one big huge challenge and that's the fact that I'm still undocumented," Rosales said. "I know that just being here is a blessing...but I still feel those insecurities that I'm not going to be able to achieve the dreams that I want to achieve."

Hear more of Judith's story here:

Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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