Branching Out: First-generation college students develop new roots

by Ariell Allred, photos by Nick Carpenter

First-generation and low-income students are more than twice as likely to drop out during their freshman year than their collegiate counterparts, according to the Pell Institute. But first-generation college students who keep going despite the challenges overcome the stereotypes and statistics while paving the way for future generations. And the biggest difference between those that succeed and those who do not? Family support.

“Academically, freshman year ruined me,” said Grecia Jimenez, a USU junior majoring in human development and first-generation college student. “I was going through so much and I was just trying to have fun. School-wise I nearly flunked out.” By the time sophomore year rolled around, Jimenez had lost her scholarship and financial aid. Having a “blast” with friends during a memorable freshman year came at a price Jimenez could not afford.

“I was going to take the semester off but my parents would just not let me,” Jimenez said. “They helped me through a semester and I had to get really good grades to get back on track.” The financial strain for an unfinanced semester was an immense sacrifice for the Jimenez family, who, aside from encouraging words and support, had little to give monetarily. “The semester that my parents helped out was so hard for them. I was only able to take six credits. I was always late on my fees but my parents always came through,” Jimenez said. “Even my grandparents in Colombia helped out a lot, sending money to help me through it. I cried when they told me.”

With family support, Jimenez was able to get back on track, rising above a challenge more deeply embedded than having a good time during freshman year. According to 2011 statistics provided by the Pell Institute, 46.8 percent of low-income first-generation students drop out of post-secondary education. Contrast that with the 23.3 percent dropout rate among the non-first-generation students from higher-income situations, and a great disparity emerges.

“I think the hardest part about doing it on your own starts in high school,” Jimenez said. “Most kids had their parents going to college night and school tours and meeting with their financial advisers and stuff. I didn’t do any of that. My parents would have done it but they just didn’t know.” When senior year rolled around, college was on Jimenez’ top priority list. “I wanted to apply to school and I didn’t know how and my parents didn’t know either,” Jimenez said. Overwhelmed and unsure of her next step, Jimenez turned to a school counselor who helped her with everything she needed, including waiving application fees because Jimenez “just didn’t have the money.”

Rene Hernandez, a recruitment specialist for USU and first-generation graduate, said first-generation students have similar predicaments across the board. “A lot of people think that there are so many multicultural scholarships and help out there, and that is very true, but not many of these kids know how to apply or even access them because it’s going back to the lack of knowledge and support from their parents.” According to Hernandez, a lot of parents simply “haven’t had a lot of experience with the education system.”

Since sixth grade Jasmine Lee, a USU sociology sophomore, has taken her studies seriously. “I’ve always been that person to just jump into education.” As a West Valley native, attending a campus with less ethnic diversity than her own high school was a bit of a culture shock. She found herself often “categorized” by students and professors alike. While attending a social problems class, a professor told the students that there are good stereotypes, such as African-Americans being really good at sports. “A lot of people think that just because I’m here, I’m here on a sporting scholarship. I’m not, I’m here for school,” Lee said in response to the professor’s comment. “I try to just roll things off my sleeve, but when it does become a problem, I address it then and there,” she said.

Lee “loves education” and recognizes what a great opportunity it is to be attending a university as a first-generation student. “I’m actually proud that I’m here in college today because my parents came from nothing,” Lee said. “So the opportunity I have to go, I’m going to take that and hopefully give back to them. … Sometimes I think people forget just how much our parents do. And I think as African Americans we get into the habit of ‘my ancestors were constricted so much that I’m going to stay like that because it’s comfortable.’ But sometimes we have to break out of that comfort so we can get comfortable with something else.”

This is no easy task. According to Hernandez, some first-generation students get overwhelmed and believe college isn’t a good fit. “It’s a cycle that just repeats itself because they either drop out or decide to do something else after high school,” Hernandez said. “But for those who do break the mold, it impacts generations as the example ripples down family lines.”

This impact has already begun in the family of Sarah Davis, a freshman majoring in business finance from Kirtland, New Mexico. As the youngest of five children, three of whom also attended college, Davis has good examples and support. As a first-generation student at USU, Davis has found that her college experience has introduced new thinking, which has been difficult for her parents to understand. “At school you’re going to be exposed to other people and other viewpoints,” Davis said. “And one thing I’ve noticed politically since I’ve come up here is that my parents are very right-winged Republicans and I’m starting to shift along the political spectrum.” The same, she said, has occurred with her other siblings. “Our perspectives have changed a lot because we’ve seen a broader sampling of the population. Our viewpoints have changed.”

Davis noted that her “parents are the definition of supportive,” but they never pushed her toward higher education. “More than anything I was always self-motivated. My parents never punished me for bad grades and they never gave me incentives for good grades,” Davis said. “So when my siblings and I decided to go to college, it came from our own desires, not because of our parents.” Like Jimenez, Davis wasn’t sure where to begin when she decided to apply to universities. “My parents didn’t know what to expect so I did a lot of research myself. But there was nothing that necessarily made my lot any more difficult than anyone else’s.”

Many factors play into college success, whether they be financial resources, parental guidance, advising or background, Hernandez said. “Really I think it comes down to the perspective of the student. Sometimes it’s going to be up to you to open your own doors. But to get to them you don’t have to do it by yourself.”

Eddie Campos is the first of his family to go to college and was the first to graduate this semester. “At the moment I am running through the usual motions of being excited, impatient for the day to come and deep down a little scared about life after college,” Campos said. “I am confident in where Utah State has taken me academically so I feel like I have a solid foundation to start on. I just have to get through this last semester.” Campos’ parents pushed and even rewarded him for doing well in school. “My parents incentivized it for us when we were younger, starting in the fourth grade or so, by giving us end of the year presents.”

Campos received a degree in art with an emphasis in graphic design and plans to work in branding and advertising. Education has always been part of his life, a priority made by his parents. “My parents are lenient with a lot of things, but education isn’t one of them,” Campos said. “My biggest fear is to disappoint them—it’s scary!” Campos’ parents were born and raised in Puebla, Mexico, immigrating to the U.S. when he was five years old. Since then they have been “on his case about education,” and still ask to see his report card, not understanding that report cards are not part of college life. “Sometimes I’ll print off or send them my transcript so they have something,” Campos said.

Graduating was a milestone for both Campos and his parents. “I am not only overcoming statistics, but I am setting an example for my two younger siblings, as well as other Latino youth,” Campos said. “There is but one word to describe all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into graduating: Finally!”



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