Historically, around 30% of students are the first in their families to go to college. And that can cause them to get lost and lagged behind in the college admissions process.
First generation college students don’t have the same equitable access to college as other students, says Deana Waintraub Stafford, assistant director of the Center for First Generation Student Success.
“There is knowledge that you have as someone who has already participated [college]and you can pass that on to someone in your family – that’s critical to understanding the process, ”says Stafford. She also says application fees, standardized tests, admissions essays, and the free state grant application all add to the barriers faced by first-generation college students.
Last year, these students had the added challenge of finishing high school and finding college amid the uncertainties of COVID-19. The pandemic has weighed heavily on college attendance overall, as the number of students this spring is down about 6% year over year.
Yet Fernanda Padilla Colin and Khushi Patel – two first generation college students determined to pursue higher education – found the inspiration, strength, and guidance they needed to achieve the schools of their dreams. Here is how.
Focus on what drives you
When Padilla Colin talks about her path to college, she begins with her parents’ decision to leave Mexico for the United States. During the trip, she and her older brother were separated from their mother. «It’s a different level of fear that not many people understand,» she says.
She helped her mother clean houses since she was nine and while she did not diminish the importance of her mother’s job, she decided that she wanted something different for herself and her family.
Her parents pushed education as a path to upward mobility, and Padilla Colin says she grew to adopt her philosophy and put academic pressure on herself.
She struggled to get a clear A because she knew she wouldn’t go to college just because of her background story. «A lot of children have stories similar to mine,» she says. To differentiate herself, she got involved in a cause that was close to her heart: she helped translate legal documents for immigrants.
This fall, she will be leaving her home in Berkeley, California for a full scholarship to Rice University. Rice is her dream school, she says, because it allows her to study immigration topics and get an education without running into debt or putting financial strain on her parents.
“It was a great relief that [my parents] I didn’t have to pay for my education, ”says Padilla Colin. “But before I came [the scholarship]I told them that they would not pay for my education. I told them I was going to college so I’ll find out. «
She admits that others may want to forget their tough past, but she uses the past to fuel them. Her college admissions trainer, Hafeez Lakhani, encouraged her to find out and focus on what really motivates her.
«For me, that’s immigration,» she says.
How to use what drives you
Take into account challenges in your background or other aspects of your life or environment that you want to improve.
Brainstorm ways you can contribute to these improvements in high school. For Padilla Colin this helped translate legal documents for immigrants.
Lean into your community
Khushi Patel was born in Michigan and is a child of Indian immigrants. “We have lived and worked in a local for most of my life [Detroit area] Motel, ”she says.
Although her father graduated from high school in India, her mother stopped going to school after eighth grade. Patel said she is determined to «escape this kind of intergenerational poverty,» and sees her college education as something she does for herself and her parents.
Without her parents’ guidance on academic and college admissions, Patel looked to others in her community who were going to college and could provide a roadmap. «I really learned how to improve on the resources I had,» she says. She spoke to college graduates and relied on teachers and counselors she knew believed in.
«I was here during my elementary school, middle school, and high school,» says Patel. “We’re a low-income school district, and the majority of the schools are also colored students. If someone goes to four year college, it’s something that is out of the norm. «
By leaning on her community, she was able to identify scholarship and scholarship opportunities that eventually led to her acceptance at Brown University. The scholarships she received cover most of the cost.
Brown is her dream school because of the flexibility it offers.
«Brown has an open curriculum that allows students to explore,» she says. «You can take a course in literature while you take a course in robotics.»
How you can lean into your community
Ask questions to make sure you understand what is needed in the process and how to increase your chances of success.
Get help filling out the FAFSA. The FAFSA is required for federal and many other financial aid programs and grants.
Do not stop
Padilla Colin and Patel both experienced setbacks on the way to their dream schools.
Patel’s older brother entered Duke University on a full QuestBridge scholarship. Patel applied for the same program and was rejected twice.
“I thought, ‘OK, it’s over. This program is aimed at first generation and low income students. If I can’t go into it, I won’t go to school, ”she says. Her parents and brother told her the right program was coming, and it did.
«Each path will be different,» she says. She reminds other students facing setbacks to remain “relentless and fierce”.
Padilla Colin says she initially thought her dream school was Harvard University. «I had no idea what Harvard really was,» she says.
She decided not to apply there and instead focus on schools that were part of the QuestBridge program. In doing so, she assessed what she really wanted in a school and realized that her real dream school was a school with a strong immigration research center. Reis rose to the top with his children’s institute for urban research.
Padilla Colin advises other first generation students to «be ready to take advantage of every opportunity.» And she warns that the journey will not be easy.
“There will be times when you just want to break down. You have to work hard, «she says before repeating,» You have to work hard. «