At the Edge of Two Worlds

After only a few minutes, the counselor could tell that Juan1 was a bright young man. He spoke clearly and confidently about politics, current events, and his interests in writing and one day holding elective office. His energy and intelligence had the counselor thinking immediately about a wide range of colleges, some far from Juan’s Hispanic Chicago neighborhood: Here was a student who would go places. But when the topic of post-high school options finally came up, Juan was puzzled. “You mean I can go to college outside Chicago?” he said. As the oldest of three children and the first in his Mexican immigrant family to consider graduating from high school, he had other things on his mind: How his family would cope without the income from his video store job; what his siblings would do without his leadership; and how his parents would manage without his help translating and guiding them through the complex world of American life.

Poised at the edge of two worlds, Juan had to weigh his own future with his family’s, a situation not uncommon for first generation students preparing for life after high school. Unlike their counterparts from college-going families, first generation students lack many of the assumptions and supports that make attending college simply a matter of applying, being accepted and enrolling. As they enter the college application process they must deal with academic, personal, and family issues that students from more privileged backgrounds seldom need to consider in the same depth. The idea of attending college may itself be difficult to comprehend. For those students, Juan’s question is more often, “You mean I can go to college?”

The statistics are daunting: African American and Hispanic students have only a 50 percent chance of finishing high school, in contrast to White and Asian students, with 75 and 77 percent completion rates. Only 20 percent and 31 percent of college-age Hispanic and African American students are enrolled in college; corresponding percentages for White and Asians are 41 and 60. And only six percent of low-income students earn a BA, while 40 percent of high-income students do so, and in less time. (These and subsequent statistics about college attendance come from the website http://www.firstinthefamily.org, a project of the Lumina Foundation.) Although there have been significant improvements over the last thirty years, first generation and low-income students still must deal with skeins of cultural, social, and personal issues that are often tangled by a lack of information about the college application process, a lack of understanding and support in their communities and families, and a sense of personal responsibility that hinders their willingness to pursue their goals at the expense of family or other obligations.

The term “first generation” often indicates a great deal more than just being the first in the family to go to college. It may include coming from a low-income family in a disadvantaged or even dangerous neighborhood. It can mean having limited English skills and attending crowded, poorly funded schools with few counselors and overworked teachers. Parents may have no understanding of “college,” especially if they come from abroad: The Byzantine American system of college choice has no counterpart anywhere else in the world (in some countries, “college” actually means “high school”). In many countries, there is only one “university” worth attending; nearly all the rest are seen as inferior, and where you go may depend nearly entirely on a school leaving test that can’t be retaken multiple times. The term “liberal arts college” more often than not simply doesn’t translate into anything meaningful or useful in English or otherwise.

Being first generation affects students well after they are accepted as well. Students are suddenly overwhelmed by a sea of privilege and seemingly effortless accomplishment. Classmates talk about what they’ll do Saturday night or which courses they’ll take, not whether they can afford to go out for dinner or buy all the books on the reading list. Angel Perez, now Dean of Admission at Pitzer College, knows this experience firsthand. He says he didn’t realize he was poor until he arrived on Skidmore’s leafy campus, having left his crime-ridden South Bronx neighborhood determined to make it out of the ‘hood. He also struggled with his cultural identity: “At school I wasn’t white enough, and at home, I was no longer a real Hispanic. ‘You talk funny,’ my brother and friends would say when I came home. ‘Why you trying to be white?’ kids would tease in the projects when they would see me return from school. I remember turning down a ride [home] from my college roommate because I did not want him to see where I really lived.” As Kathleen Cushman writes in her article “Facing the Culture Shock of College,” “These cultural tensions may be one reason that almost one-fourth of first-generation students who enter four year colleges in the United States do not return for a second year.” (Educational Leadership, Vol. 64, No. 7, April 2007)

For these students and their families, financial concerns are also paramount. Where college-going families cringe and accept the need to put some kind of financing together for their children, they seldom have to consider whether they will still be able to pay the rent or car insurance. Families struggling to make ends meet see the price tag of a liberal arts college and find it hard to get beyond it, even when told about “financial aid.” To add to the confusion, they can’t be sure what that expense will get them or their child, nor do they know that they can get free help navigating the process from the federal government and colleges themselves. Plenty of scams centered around finding money for college or getting athletic scholarships prey on this ignorance, increasing their wariness. The struggle to meet everyday obligations collides with thinking about their child’s long-term success; often, there’s no room for error, making the contest that much more critical.

Regardless of these issues, first generation students can be as ambitious and bright as their more college-knowledgeable peers. Despite what seem like overwhelming odds, they want to make something of their lives. That may mean returning to their communities to help those in similar situations, or going out into the wider world battling the problems that once surrounded them. Or, like anyone else, they may simply want to do better than their forbears did, making good on the promise of the American dream. While background can affect students’ approaches to their futures, it isn’t destiny. College counselors working with first generation students find that they need to be particularly attentive to personal and family issues before, during, and after the process.

Aside from not having any assumptions about college attendance, first generation students often have no models to look to for inspiration, either adults or peers. They must create their own paths to college almost from scratch and so need good guidance as they hack through the underbrush. Some aspects of the process simply need to be noted and brought to a student’s attention. Aliza Gilbert of Highland Park H.S. says many of the first generation students she works with don’t take the strategic measures their more informed peers do. She says, “Unless you have an outside person telling you, [these students] only take the ACT once.” They don’t realize that it’s possible to take the test (or the SAT, for that matter) multiple times. Seemingly small details like this can make a difference to a student with a good record but poor scores. Students unfamiliar with the process may also not realize that they can pull themselves out of tricky situations. Dee Holohan, now with the Schuler Foundation, which supports first generation students’ efforts to attend college, tells of a young man she worked with at St. Martin de Porres School in Milwaukee several years ago. Handsome and popular, he had done poorly his freshman and sophomore years and was convinced he could never get into college. Naturally, this assumption wreaked havoc on his motivation. “I told him that if he turned things around he could go to a good school. I emphasized that it was his choice and said if I could believe in him, he could believe in himself,” Dee says. Remarkably, he “did a complete 180°, going from Ds and Fs to straight As in his classes. By senior year he was very successful” and in a position to be accepted at several colleges.

Dee’s student also greatly improved his chances of completing college. According to First in the Family, over 75 percent of students who earn an A or A plus average in high school complete college, compared to 20 percent with a C average. Additionally, over 60 percent with two or more AP courses graduate from college in four years or less as opposed to only 29 percent of those who don’t, and, most dramatically, 75 percent of students who take pre-calculus in high school earn their BA degrees in contrast to the seven percent who do so with only Algebra 1. Aliza Gilbert tells a similar story of a young woman with Bs, Cs, and Ds her first two years of high school. Approached by Adelante (“move forward”), a group within the school dedicated to identifying and developing student leaders, the student began to think of herself as a leader and improved her grades because she realized that “teachers believed in her.” Last year she earned all As and Bs, receiving a scholarship to the summer College Access Program at the University of Wisconsin. She is currently in AP Psychology and well on her way. Aliza says she “gets it” now and realizes that even though it may be a struggle she can achieve.

Working with first generation students means in part putting aside all assumptions about what a student knows or doesn’t know about college or life after high school. Gilbert says, “They don’t necessarily see college as part of their life plan.” This in itself is a major hurdle that may take a long time to overcome. Working primarily with Latino students, Gilbert notes that girls tend to think about college when they’re younger but lose that image before they get to high school as they realize they are expected to marry and have a family; boys are expected to provide either for their family of origin or the one they make, or both. For other students, the struggle to get through high school may leave them exhausted and unwilling to take the next step. If the family is not supportive, this can lead to steady deterioration in performance and a lack of motivation, a vicious circle that can be hard to break. Although these conditions can be daunting, many counselors working with first generation students find it a positive challenge. The pleasure of seeing students take tremendous strides that will ultimately benefit their families as well as themselves can be immeasurable, and the motivation to go to college affects other areas of a student’s life as well. The struggles may be tough, but that only makes the results more satisfying. Gilbert remembers counseling a pregnant student that, with a baby to support, she couldn’t afford not to get the most education she could.

Of course, first generation students need all the information that other students do to prepare for the college process: the whos, whats, wheres, and whens are the same no matter what your background, but the whys need to be addressed more thoroughly for students with non-college families. Parents in particular may want to know why they should send a child far away, spend a great deal of money and sometimes lose a babysitter or second or third income producer in order to gain an uncertain benefit. The intrinsic worth of a college education is often not apparent to many parents regardless of background, but many may respond to several specific advantages of college attendance, as presented by First in the Family:

  • Over a lifetime, a college graduate can earn $1 million more than a high school graduate
  • On average, college graduates have lower rates of unemployment than high school graduates
  • College graduates have more jobs to choose from
  • Even a little over a year of college can increase lifetime earnings 15 percent
  • College opens doors and introduces students to worlds and people who can make a difference to them in the long run
  • Higher education helps you be a leader and make better decisions
  • College graduates live longer

Despite these powerful advantages, first generation students still may shy away from the whole idea of college partly because of the complexity of the college process and the uncertainty of financial aid. An uncertain future doesn’t compete well with here-and-now needs. But counselors agree that several basic techniques can help these students come to terms with the next phase of their lives, all of which, of course, are linked:

  1. Make going to college expected, not extraordinary: Schools as a whole need to establish a sense that going to college is the essential next step for their students. This expectation can be found in the courses offered, teachers’ talking about their own colleges, students being challenged and held to high performance standards, and establishing a four-year plan to support college planning. College counselors can help by being part of discussions about curriculum and being advocates for college attendance. Creating a “college going” atmosphere in the school as a whole helps and visits to local campuses let students see what they could have if they work hard.
  2. Make it personal: Tony Seiden, college counselor at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago, says the most important thing is “developing a partnership with both the student and parent(s) early in their high school career. Developing a high level of trust…is a key initial step in helping students succeed throughout high school.” Bringing the family in on the process acknowledges the importance of family in the decision making process, something that is often particularly important for first generation students. Aliza Gilbert says it’s easier to work with kids when they can connect the name with a face.
  3. Let students know they can do it: Angel Perez of Pitzer still remembers the teacher who observed him intently counseling a fellow student when he was a peer leader and saw something in him that he hadn’t seen in himself. She told him he had what it took to go to college and he finally believed her. Unfortunately, many first generation students internalize the idea that they aren’t “college material.” An honest, well-placed observation about a student’s writing, science grades, or acting skill can put that student on the path to high school and college success. This method can include suggesting summer programs on college or school campuses in the student’s field of interest or that will provide extra academic preparation for high school.
  4. Say it and say it again: Even students from college-going backgrounds have to be reminded about deadlines and forms; first generation students and their families need particular attention because everything is new. Counselors say it’s important to keep tabs on the kids and communicate information again and again in different ways. Mailings, emails, phone calls, and messages through teachers and other trusted people reinforce the importance of getting things done. But don’t assume that everyone has email, for example; as they say in computerland, always have built in redundancy in case the primary system fails.
  5. Be present for the future: Part of the counselor’s job is to encourage students to do well in their time in high school so they can have a better chance of going on to college. Students supported in and outside of class respond to positive attention and can make huge gains in a relatively short time. Actively participating in clubs and sports as well as taking on leadership roles in high school can be beneficial in the short and long term. Counselors can build a foundation for these achievements by helping students see how being involved in school, community, and even at home can have positive long-term effects.
  6. It takes one to know one: First generation students often do not have models they can follow as they start to gain exposure to college planning. Tony Seiden has Perspectives alumni come and talk to his students and has alums’ parents talk to current parents about what it was like to send their children off to college. He says, “Parents are good at working with each other to achieve the same goal.” At Highland Park, students identified by their teachers as potential leaders visit their middle schools to talk about what to look for and avoid as when they get to high school. Having students and parents talk to each other can build the kind of community that college-going families assume. When counselors of color visit a school and talk about their own experiences as well as their colleges, students pay attention. Seiden says, “I’ve seen students who don’t care about school, or consider college a future option, make a complete 180 after visiting with a campus rep [of color].”
  7. Keep at it: In many ways, students are students no matter what their backgrounds. With first generation students, however, simple persistence may be one of the most important factors influencing their eventual college attendance. Angel Perez says he came to trust his counselor because she was persistent. “She told me five times to visit Skidmore before I actually went.” By repeating the message that “I think you’d really be a good match for this school” over and over, she finally persuaded him to get on the bus, changing his life. Because many students may come from single parent households, a counselor’s continued faith and attention may be particularly significant. (At Urban Prep in Chicago, for example, 94 percent of students come from single parent, female-headed households.) Gilbert emphasizes that “these kids don’t have a parent or a hired person to manage the process for them” so the counselor is a real touchstone keeping them on target. Dee Holohan and the Schuler Foundation take a highly active role with students from the end of their freshman year, including requiring them to attend at least one summer program (paid for by the Foundation). Careful planning and detailed follow-up help ensure that students don’t slip through the cracks.

Although the time and energy needed to work with first generation students can be daunting, the rewards can be immense. Seeing the first sparks of talent and interest ignite into a bonfire of energy and hope may be some of the most satisfying moments in counselors’ lives. Helping students enter the gateways to American success ensures that their children, no longer first generation college goers, will be even more likely to succeed.

This article was recently published in the IACAC Newsletter, Nov. 2007.

1 Not his real name. “Juan” is a composite of two different charter school students counseled by the author.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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