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Far From Home: Issues Facing First-Gen College Students

Christopher Massa
Skidmore College
Skidmore College

Every year, first-generation students across the country step onto college and university campuses that are different from their hometown in every way. Even for those financially and academically prepared, social and emotional challenges can influence their ability to stay and graduate.

This is the first of a five-part special report, "Far From Home."

Anjelica Espinoza had never heard of Skidmore College before her junior year of high school. She was open to going out of state for school, and she knew she wanted to double major in pre-med and dance. She was surprised when the small college in Saratoga Springs, New York, turned out to be her dream school.

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“I just fell in love with it,” Espinoza said. “The community was just so close and so diverse, and the dance department was amazing. Their med school acceptance rate is super high, and it just seemed like the place I wanted to be.”

Espinoza easily gained admission, and a substantial financial aid package made it possible for her to enroll. Then came the hard part, Espinoza said. She’ll be the first in her family to leave the West Side of San Antonio. She’s not alone.

Credit Contributed photo
Anjelica Espinoza

The Right Fit

Every year, first-generation Hispanic students across the country step onto college and university campuses that are different from their hometown in every way. Even for those financially and academically prepared, social and emotional challenges can influence their ability to stay and graduate.

“One big reason why I was concerned about leaving was (because I have been) the big help in my house. Because I know how much pressure that would put on my parents, and I didn't want to be the source of that pressure,” Espinoza said.

Her parents convinced her they would be fine. They encouraged her to follow her dreams.

At the same time, understanding their student’s new environment allows parents to rest easy while their child becomes more independent. For Espinoza, that personal formation is key.

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“If I let the nervousness take over, take over me as much as I thought it would, I probably just wouldn't get the education that I know I can get,” she said, “I wouldn't be able to be as independent as I know it can be.”

College advisors, like Ruben Rodriguez with KIPP Through College, say that students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college, are more likely to graduate if the size, price-tag, location, and academic offerings are a good fit for their own ambitions. Finding this “right fit” is a high touch process that involves getting to know the student, their family situation, and getting them to think outside the box of “close to home” or familiar names.

Skidmore College

“We are even more intentional now our junior year about creating a list based on the right fit for college. And then let's talk about the academic fit and develop that profile above the school that they want to go to,” Rodriguez said.

The quest for the best fit and an adequate financial aid package takes many students beyond their own backyard. College advisors at KIPP and San Antonio Independent School District say they encourage students consider colleges on a list of “top tier” universities that offer full tuition and cost of living scholarships based on need. Most of these are high profile schools, many on the East Coast, with large endowments. In Texas, only Rice University is on that list.

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However, Rodriguez has seen that even students who don’t end up going to one of those schools might have a better chance of success if they are open to casting a wide net.

A Family Affair

Julio Martinez also found his “best fit” in New York, at the College of New Rochelle which offered him academic scholarships to cover 90 percent of his tuition and living expenses, a better financial aid package than any of his other options. His family will take out $5,000-$6,000 per year in subsidized student loans. He also earned a spot on the College of New Rochelle soccer team.  He’s confident in his future, but he has plenty of friends who weren’t willing to consider going far away.

Credit Contributed photo
Julio Martinez (8)

Each student interviewed for this series had friends whose family responsibilities, fear of leaving home, and even immigration status had prevented them from enrolling in their best-fit college.

The unfamiliarity makes parents nervous as well, SAISD college advisor Art Martinez (no relation to Julio Martinez) said. Many have never had to think about sending their children out of the neighborhood, much less the state.

“That's a very scary thought (for them),” Martinez said.

By inviting parents into the unfamiliar college experience through outreach events, parent councils, and parent orientation, colleges and high schools have found that the parents of first-gen students are excited to continue their role as supporters, cheerleaders, and advisors to their students.

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Anjelica Espinoza’s family took a road trip together to upstate New York to drop her off, making a family memory connected to her college experience.

Julio Martinez is also close to his family. He wants to study business, in part so that he can help his parents expand their furniture business. His journey is taking him into new territory, but he draws inspiration from his family story. While they might not have a family history of university education, they do have a family culture of entrepreneurship and, frankly, courage.

“My parents moved from Mexico to the United States in 1999, the same year I was born,” Martinez explained, “They moved from a place they've never left to the United States. ... They didn't know that they were going to be successful.”

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He also knows that going to college will make it more likely that his younger brother will follow in his footsteps. Research supportshis belief that having a sibling who graduated from college is one way students can begin to feel that they belong in college.

“I'm very convinced my younger brother is going to be much more successful than me just because I’ve set a picture for how you're supposed to do it,” he said.

That sense of belonging is one of the major differences between the ordinary homesickness of most college freshmen and the unique loneliness experienced by first-generation students who come from low income or minority families.

In accordance with a generally increasing Hispanic demographic, increasing numbers of Hispanic are enrolling at competitive universities across the country, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of those are first-generation students, as are 30 percent of college students in the United States.

In some ways, it’s a flashback to the 1950s and 60s when globalization, industrialization, and the GI Bill drove the white middle class to enroll in greater numbers than before. In those decades, said UCLA researcher Sylvia Hurtado, many college students were also the first in their family to attend colleges.

The difference, of course, is that most of them were white and male. While they lacked a college-going family tradition, they saw themselves mirrored in their classmates. They knew they belonged.

Now, according to the U.S. Department of Education, white students make up 70 percent of continuing-generation college students, meaning their parents and/or grandparents went to college. Hispanic students make up nine percent. Among first-generation students, 49 percent are white, and 27 percent are Hispanic.

Credit Contributed photo
From left, Phoenix, Cheyenne, Jaden, Sierra Gonzales.

A Sense Of Belonging

It takes more than numbers to help the new waves of first-gen students feel as though they belong in places like Princeton University, where Sierra Gonzales is a freshman.

Princeton was the best fit for her because, unlike Martinez and Espinoza, she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do.

“When I was looking into Princeton, and I wasn't really thinking about what they were going to do for me in terms of, like, a major, because I know myself and I know I keep changing my mind about my major anyway,” she said, “So I just thought that as long as I get a good education then I can do anything from there. And I'll figure it out on the way.”

After graduating as valedictorian from Fox Tech in San Antonio ISD, Gonzales spent the summer at the Princeton Freshman Scholars Institute, getting to know other students like her who might feel alone on campus.

“I know that the campus is trying,” Gonzales said, “... but just as a whole it is a fact, and we are aware that the majority of campus is white.”

Khristina Gonzalez oversees the Freshman Scholars Institute at Princeton. She said that students who do not fit the old Princeton molds are critical to helping the university evolve.

“The reason we brought you to Princeton is because we want you to recreate the campus in your image,” she tells them.

While the university is doing its best to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, Khristina Gonzalez encourages first-gen and low-income students to speak up when they see blind spots or bias, using the strengths she brings with her from home.

Princeton University
For instance, Sierra Gonzales said when she hears a stereotype or caricature of Hispanic culture, she can speak directly to it. When a classmate references restaurants or clothing brands that might indicate class status, the burden often falls on students like Sierra Gonzales, Anjelica Espinoza, and Julio Martinez to remind them that not everyone can afford such things.

“I usually ignore it, and I kind of like keep a low profile. But here I’ve learned that you really just kind of need to take it by the root and address the problem,” Gonzales said. “Not in an unpolite way, but just to try to understand their thinking and maybe try to get them to understand your thinking.”

To channel that bravery, Gonzales said she first had to do some reflecting.

While in high school, Gonzales said she often didn’t feel “as Latina” as her classmates. Her family didn’t engage in as many of the cultural traditions, they didn’t make as many Mexican dishes in their home.

“I felt almost like a fake Mexican,” she said, “Since coming (to Princeton) I’ve been trying to accept that I’m still Latina and I’m still Mexican even if my family didn’t do all the things that other families did.”

In her new surrounds, Gonzales has embraced the fact that her Latina identity is based not so much on things like food and music, but on her unique perspective. It's a perspective that colleges and universities would do well to understand.

The "Far From Home" series is funded by an Education Writers Association reporting fellowship.
Bekah McNeel is an education reporter based out of San Antonio and can be reached at bekah.mcneel@gmail.com

CORRECTION: Sierra Gonzales' name has been updated with the correct spelling. TPR regrets the error.