Be the First in Your Family to Go to College

You Can Do It—and This Advice from Other First-Generation College Students Can Help

By Kathleen Cushman

Hazel Janssen thinks of herself as an artist. "I love to act," she says, "but I also knit, I sew, I shoot and edit movies." When she found herself crammed into the over-crowded classrooms of a huge Denver high school, she fell behind in her work and lost interest in school. "I need a lot of attention," she says. "If I have questions, I need them answered. And I work better at my own pace." At 16, she dropped out and moved in with her boyfriend. She decided not to worry about college. Maybe she didn’t even need it, since she wanted to live the artist’s life. Her father and mother did not have college degrees, so why should she?

Six months later, Hazel was having second thoughts. College might help her find a job that paid more—or maybe she could learn acting or directing in a college program. But she had another worry. At this point, what college would want her? Was she even "college material"?

All around the country, young people ask themselves that question, especially those whose parents did not go to college. Not all of these students choose to drop out of high school, as Hazel did. They might get their diplomas and then look for work instead of aiming for higher education. They might stick it out in high school, but notice that nobody ever mentions college as an option for them.

You may already be planning your way to college. But if not—if your situation sounds like any of these—you could be asking yourself, "Am I college material?" In the pages that follow, students who are the first in their family to go to college tell how they said yes to that question. They describe how they overcame obstacles like paying tuition, and made it to college—and how you could, too.

Consider the alternatives you face without a college degree.

Attending a technical high school in Oakland, Calif., Niema Jordan often heard friends say that they had better things to do with their time than go to college.

You have to think about, what does "better with your time" mean? You may say, "Well, I know somebody who makes such and such amount of money," but those people are exceptions to the rule. There’s no guarantee that you will be the next exception. Think about where that part-time or full-time job is going to have you in 10 years, as opposed to where college is going to have you in 10 years. You can find statistics anywhere on the difference between the salaries of a high school graduate and a college graduate.

I think one of the main things that prevents people from going to college is not being able to see far enough into the future. I think it comes from always having to worry about the here and now. My mom was never worried about how she was going to feed me in 10 years. She was worried about how she was going to get food on the table for tonight.

–Niema

Start planning as early in high school as you can.

Starting in ninth grade, you make decisions that will affect your path to college. As you go about selecting your high school courses, signing up for extracurricular activities, getting support, and doing homework, you are developing the strengths that will show up on your college applications later.

But it’s not all about waiting for a college to say yes to you. You decide where to apply, and the earlier you start considering what you want, the better your chances of getting it. As you find out more about what you like and don’t like, you can start to compile a list of colleges that appeal to you. Niema made her way through high school with college always on her to-do list.

I think you should start freshman year. Things are easier when you plan ahead of time: "Okay, what does it take for me to graduate from high school, what does it take for me to get into college?" You could very well graduate from high school and not have the required courses to get into college. So you have to figure that out. Then ask, "What are some possible colleges that I can get into?"

The earlier you start, the easier it is for you to be picky, to find something that you really like. You want to have a list of what it is you’re looking for in a school, so you can rule some schools out.

–Niema

Like all students with that goal, Niema had to stay on top of things, meeting every deadline on time and figuring out dozens of unfamiliar requirements. It helps to have a checklist to keep you organized and on schedule. Take a look at "The Journey Begins Now"; it has samples of checklists for 9th- through 12th-graders that will make figuring out the path to college much easier.

Even if you don’t start planning in high school, it’s not too late for anybody to go to college.

Attending high school in rural Indiana, John Berry did not work very hard at his classes. Almost no one else went to college from his school.

I came from a high school where you did the bare minimum. That was basically the expectation…. Most of my friends either went into the military or started their families, worked in restaurants or grocery stores, got factory jobs.

I worked in a factory making door panels for Subarus, and then I moved to the city and worked as the night kitchen manager for a restaurant. When they closed the place, I ended up doing maintenance for a moving company. It just wasn’t what I was meant to do. I’m not mechanically inclined at all. I have to think which way to turn a screwdriver to tighten a screw!

I thought, "This is not the job for me," but I had bills to pay. I had two options: I could either go back to school or move back with my family. I always knew in the back of my mind that the only real way I’m ever going to make anything of myself is to go back to school.

–John

John was already 25 years old when he applied for college, and he chose a commuter college* (Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne) where the average student is 24 years old. Once enrolled, he kept working at a restaurant job, and took a full course load as well. He plans to go on for a graduate degree, and wants some day to teach history at a university. "College is what you make of it," he says. "You can do anything if you make time for it."

Get a good idea of what’s out there by doing your own research.

Like many urban high schools, the one Niema attended did not have enough college counselors to help all students. So she set out to look for answers and determine which colleges would make a good match for her.

I didn’t have a big sister or brother or even a cousin to go to and say, "What did you do in order to get in?" So I read other people’s accounts in books. I looked at the admissions Web sites for the different colleges. Maybe you have an ideal college in mind—that’s where some people start out. I know people who were like, "I want to go to an Ivy League." So they went online and researched all the requirements, and that’s how they planned out their high school career. For me, it wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to get into a certain school. I just wanted to get into college.

Things don’t always fall in your lap, you know what I’m saying? Like, everybody’s not searching you out. Everybody’s not looking for you. You have to take the initiative.

–Niema

Aileen Rosario moved with her family to Paterson, N.J., when she was 16. Both of her parents are Dominican immigrants who do not speak English, and they worried about bad influences in the Bronx, where they had been living. They had reasons to worry. Most of Aileen’s six siblings dropped out of high school; three young nephews were living with her and her mother, while her brother served time in jail. In New Jersey, Aileen applied for a summer program at a local college.

It was free, and I decided to go just to see the experience. We stayed on campus for three weeks, but we came home Thursdays and went back on Sunday evenings. We took college classes in critical thinking, public speaking, English, and math. If you passed the class, you would get college credit, but if you didn’t, you just went there. They gave us two or three hours tutoring, so we could do all our homework, and we went to events. It was a good experience.

–Aileen

Practice taking college entrance tests and writing personal essays before you need them for your application.

Most colleges require some form of standardized tests before they accept you. To make sure you have the most options, early in 11th grade, start asking your guidance office about prep courses for both the SAT and the ACT. (Some colleges have policies about which of these tests they want you to take.) The more you get familiar with the tests, the better you do on them. Schedules for giving those tests are set early, so it is worth putting them on your calendar.

Many colleges also require you to include a personal essay in your application, so they can get a better sense of who you are and how you think. As the first in your family to go to college, you have something important to tell them in this essay. Admissions boards will take a real interest in how you came to be the person you are. The challenges you have faced, the people who inspired you, the obstacles you have overcome, and your hopes for the future are all good topics for a college essay.

If you keep a journal in high school, you might draw on it for ideas to get you started when the time comes for the application essay. Writing poetry also can help free up your thoughts and emotions and give you new ideas that you can develop later in an essay. If your English teacher assigns the class to write a personal essay (or even a letter to the editor), consider it as a tryout for the application essay, and ask for feedback on how to make it better. And, go through as many drafts as you possibly can.

Get help from all sides. It’s not just you—the application process is complicated.

Don’t let the paperwork discourage you from applying for college and financial aid. If you need someone to help you do it, ask your guidance office, your mentor or employer, even a teacher. If no one can answer your question, you can also call the college itself. They are used to answering questions, especially about the financial aid application.

Eric Polk spent his high school years in East Nashville, Tenn., at a struggling school. Supported by Aid to Families with Dependent Children, he lived with his mother and sister in the poorest section of town. Eric got help from a community organization where he had an internship, but in the end he had to sit down with his mother and go over the family’s records.

Doing the financial aid forms, that whole process was hard. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing—I would sit down at the computer and just cry! I would just look at the screen like, "What are you asking me? I don’t know what this means! I don’t have this! Mom, as busy as you are, sit down with me, help me." And dealing with a parent who does not know how to use a computer, that was the longest process of my life—like, "Mom! What are you doing!!"

My advice is just to keep a record of what you’re doing in the whole process. Have Social Security numbers handy, have bills handy, keep all your receipts, keep all your bank statements if you have them. Through the whole process, I put together a binder of everything I was supposed to have, copies and dates of stuff that I turned things in, student loans, promissory notes, all that stuff. I have copies of my FAFSA, CSS Profile, and of the application itself. Even for stuff that I had to do online I printed it out, and I have all of it. You’re going to have to send multiple copies of multiple copies of the same thing!

The hardest thing was trying to pinpoint what our income was. And I know that financial aid committee was like, "You’ve go to be kidding, this kid has nothing, I mean nothing!" I never had to do something like that before, having to prove our living situation. And because it’s already below the poverty level, trying to explain why when they say, "This doesn’t match up, how are you able to survive off just this?"

–Eric

Remember, once you are in college you must apply again for financial aid every year, in the early spring. As a high school senior, Niema got help from a volunteer at CollegeWorks, an organization that mentors students through the college and financial aid application process. By the second time around, as a first-year college student, she felt more confident doing it herself.

My mom was working, my step-dad was working, raising a family, they didn’t have time to do all the paperwork for me, so senior year I worked with a program called CollegeWorks. They had a financial aid counselor who told me what forms I needed to get done, gave me the paperwork, the worksheets. Based on his advice I filled out all my forms to get my aid for freshman year. Right now the time is coming up again for me to do financial aid, so I called my mom: "Send me your tax papers, so I can fill out all these forms, I’m handling this on my own."

–Niema

Stephanie Serda’s family did not interfere with her plans to go to college, but they didn’t expect it either. Now that she is at a state university in Ohio, she worries about whether her two younger brothers will be prepared to follow in her footsteps. Because her brothers started out on the non-college track, she thinks they may not have the chance to take challenging courses that will get them ready for college.

I really want to see them come to college and it’s hard for me to not pressure them. I know my parents don’t pressure them at all, because they didn’t pressure me. So I encouraged them and pushed them a little. I was telling them, "Come on, guys, just study harder, ’cause if you do good in those classes, they’ll put you back up into regular or college prep classes."

–Stephanie

Stephanie is right to worry. If you want to go to college, right from the start you have to raise your voice, ask for what you need, and keep your eyes open about what classes and opportunities your high school offers you. Many colleges will value the fact that you have the courage and strength to go after your goals without the resources that many students take for granted. If you make good choices and stand up for yourself, you can go after the preparation and support you need.


Kathleen Cushman is an education writer from What Kids Can Do, an organization that publicizes adolescents’ views, especially regarding their schools and communities. This article is excerpted with permission from First in the Family: Advice About College from First-Generation Students—Your High School Years, Next Generation Press, 2005.

*At a commuter college, students attend classes but do not live at the college. (back to article)

Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a required financial aid application form administered by the U.S. Department of Education. (back to article)

College Scholarship Service Profile, a financial aid application form administered by the College Board and required by many colleges. (back to article)

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