Beating the Odds: First-Generation College Students Prepare for Freshman Year

Incoming freshmen explain what put them on the college track and what their friends think about their decision.

Over the next few weeks, thousands of students will head off to college for freshman year. Given the dismal statistics on high school graduation rates, setting foot on campus is a special accomplishment for students whose parents didn't attend college. With a little help from San Francisco-based nonprofit First Graduate, a nonprofit that mentors students from middle school through college graduation, and Lauren Chianese, senior policy analyst for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's education office, we asked five soon-to-be first-generation college students how they're feeling about the transition.

GOOD: What made you want to go to college?

Magdalena Contreras, 18, Stanford University: I was never pressured into going to college by my teachers or my parents, yet going to college just seemed like the natural step to take after I graduated high school. Because I was always reminded of the opportunities my parents did not have or the ones of which they failed to take advantage, though, I felt the need to go beyond their level of education.

Kelly Jimenez, 18, City College of San Francisco: My parents never finished high school. Seeing them struggle to make a living and provide for my younger brother and I motivated me to go to college. I don’t want to work a lot and get paid very little. I want to have a job I enjoy and going to college will help me get that.

Kevin Sanchez, 17, USC: My mom always encouraged me to dedicate myself to my studies and I tried to, but halfway through high school I decided I wanted to be president of the United States. Admittedly it’s stupidly ambitious, but it gave me something to work towards.

Jesus Sandoval, 18, Pepperdine: For as long as I can remember, college has been my main goal and looking back, I can honestly say it was mostly my decision. Since both of my older sisters never graduated high school, I felt it was my duty for my entire family that I not only go to college, but to graduate so I can continue to do good for my family.

Charlene Xu, 18, University of California at Merced: I wanted to achieve something that none of my siblings ever achieved. I want to attend college for my parents because they never got a chance to go to college.

GOOD:Did your high school teachers encourage you to go to college?

Contreras: My high school teachers were always very supportive of my going to college and knew that I was on the right track. They would recommend me for Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular programs that they knew a college-bound student would need to get into the more prestigious universities.

Sanchez: I had a handful of teachers that dedicated a lot of time to encouraging me to stay on track and even tutoring me whenever I fell behind in certain subjects. I was lucky to become friends with many of my teachers and they poured an enormous amount of time and effort into my development as a student and as a person.

Sandoval: Since my first day of high school, I was told by all my teachers that I was going to be attending college. A day never passed where my teachers didn't mention life after high school.

Xu: Not really because they had other students to worry about. They only focused on the students who worked as their assistants and their friends who visited them.

GOOD: What do schools need to do to put more students on the college track?

Contreras: Teachers need to talk more about the importance of a college degree to a person's future, especially in this day and age, early on in a student's high school career.

Sanchez: The most important thing schools need to do is raise expectations. I believe that if expectations are raised, student achievement will rise to a new “acceptable” norm for even the lowest achieving students.

GOOD: What do your friends who aren't going to college this fall think about your decision to attend?

Contreras: Some respect my decision to go to college and feel that they missed out on their own opportunities to attend because of one issue or another. Others, however, were discouraging when I was exerting all my effort into getting into college.

Jimenez: They don’t really care. They’re more preoccupied with their own stuff they really don’t worry about what others do and that’s OK.

Sandoval: All of my friends are glad that I am going forward with my education and continuing to do big things. There are jokes here and there that I will change and forget about them but other than that, I have 110 percent support from all of my friends.

GOOD: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about first generation college students?

Contreras: That we are all hardened characters that have had a horrible life. While many of us have had to sacrifice some luxuries or have been disadvantaged in one way or another, we cannot all be classified as having shabby backgrounds.

Sandoval: That we will most likely end up dropping out. Hearing this bothers me. If you have the determination and the willpower to succeed, then dropping out will never be an option. There is always support and help on campus, one just needs to search for it whenever they are in need of assistance.

Sanchez: I think most people think we should be nurtured more than other college students, which I completely disagree with. I feel like we are as prepared, if not more prepared for college because we have had to do a lot of things ourselves without much guidance from our parents.

GOOD: What are you most excited about?

Sanchez: I am so excited about the opportunity to take classes I want to take, learn things I have a hunger to learn about, and exposing myself to so many new academic and social interests available only in the college environment.

Xu: I’m excited about getting out of the house and learning to be a more responsible person.

GOOD: What are you most worried about?

Jimenez: I’m mostly worried about the teachers and the amount of schoolwork they’ll give, and how organized I’ll be. It’ll be a lot more than what I’m used to and I don’t know how I’ll react to the change.

Sanchez: I am worried that I am not prepared for the workload of a college student. I think that for the first few months I will feel like college is too much for me, but I expect that feeling to subside once I grow into my role as a college student. I am also pretty worried about having to work two jobs to pay my way through school.

GOOD:Do you have a support network already in place to help you do well in college and graduate?

Jimenez: I know a few students and a few people who run programs; it’s just up to me to communicate and keep in touch. I hope to broaden my network even more once I start school.

Sanchez: The mentors and advisors who helped me get to college have also assured me that they would be willing to help as much as they can if I were to have any questions or need any favors while I am in college. I know I can later expand my support network with them as my foundation.

photo via First Graduate