First-generation college students pursue degrees despite obstacles

Persephone Angeli’s story as a first-generation University of Washington student starts with her mother.

“It’s always been her dream to get her bachelor’s and become a teacher,” Angeli said.

Angeli’s mom came to the United States from El Salvador. Her dad was born in Hawaii. Neither of Angeli’s parents were able to go to college for both a lack of finances and opportunity.

“They rejected her because she didn’t have a green card at the moment,” Angeli said. Though both of Angeli’s parents have since become United States citizens, providing for their family always came before stopping to pursue higher education when they couldn’t afford to do both.

Angeli is one of the many first-generation students at the University of Washington this year. First-generation students are on their way to become the first in their families to get a college degree. Angeli now has the opportunity neither of her parents were afforded.

Each first-generation student’s story, by definition, begins with their parents’ stories. Neither parent received a four-year college degree, and in many cases, the parents did not finish or pursue higher education because of circumstances, not choice.

Being the first in your family to be on track to graduate with a four-year degree also comes with obstacles.

The statistics bear that out. Graduation rates tend to be lower for first-generation students. The U.S. Department of Education found that students with at least one parent with a four-year degree were twice as likely as first-generation students to attain a degree.

Furthermore, a disproportionate percentage of underrepresented minority students are first-generation, according to the State of Diversity at UW report prepared by the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. The U.S. Department of Education found that 17 percent of black and Hispanic students who enroll in postsecondary institutions complete a bachelor’s degree within six years compared to 36 percent of white students.

But at the University of Washington, first-generation students also make up a significant proportion of the population. The university reported that 37 percent of this year’s entering class of undergraduates across all three campuses identified to becoming the first in their families to graduate from college.

Rickey Hall, vice president for the office of minority affairs and diversity, said these statistics don’t mean that first-generation students can’t be successful, but that schools need to be aware of how to support these students.

“That’s not what this is about it. It’s about a reality that certain populations haven’t been exposed,” he said. “We should all be honest that there are differences that folks from certain backgrounds have access or have gotten access to more things that might give them a head start in some ways. And so this is just really about saying that because of that, there’s a need for us to pay more attention.”

Paving one’s own way

Abel Acevedo’s parents both came to the United States from Mexico in their teenage years. Acevedo’s dad had left school in the fourth grade to work and help feed his family. When Acevedo’s mom got pregnant in high school, she left school to start working.

Acevedo has three older sisters, who have not completed college, and one younger sister. Acevedo said seeing what his parents and older sisters had to go through made him work hard for something else.

When Acevedo was 14, his parents woke him up early in the morning and took him to work on the fields with them. His mom told him that he needed to work hard to get his education to open other options.

While Acevedo got into college, he described his frustrations trying to navigate high school and the University of Washington He felt like he was behind other students, trying to figure out everything by himself.

“I couldn’t ask my mom to help me,” Acevedo said.

Knowing how to prepare in high school in order to succeed in college is often a soft skill cultivated by parents. But for first-generation students, they either have to figure it out on their own or find help somewhere else.

Acevedo said he probably would not be at UW if it was not for recruiters and counselors. He said a school like UW seemed out of his reach. And his parents could not help him fill out financial aid forms because they did not know how.

A recruiter had encouraged Acevedo and helped him apply to UW while counselors at a workshop helped Acevedo and his mom understand how federal financial aid worked.

Obstacles, financial and otherwise

Many first-generation students come from low-income families, where parents might work multiple jobs. Some of the first-generation students say they feel that they have to take on the financial burdens themselves.

Tiffany Palomino, a freshman at the University of Washington, is Peruvian and was raised in the greater Seattle area by her single mom. Palomino’s mom had started to attend college in Peru but then left to come to the United States.

“She gave it all up because she wanted me to become an American citizen,” Palomino said.

Palomino’s mom never wanted her daughter to work because she wanted her to focus on her education. But Palomino said she would help her mom with work anyway, by helping her mother at her custodial job at Palomino’s school.

“She used to have an arm injury, but she would still clean,” Palomino said. “She’s like Superman, or like Superwoman.”

Palomino said her family relied on the bus, and her teachers did not always understand that being dependent on public transportation meant that they would sometimes be late.

Angeli also faced financial difficulties. She realized the summer before school started that her parents would not be able to help her financially.

It soon became clear that financial aid also wouldn’t be enough. So Angeli started working extra hours and sold many of her belongings to save up enough money to attend UW.

“I literally had to sell my own dog,” Angeli said.

The pressure of being first

Sacrifices like these motivate Angeli to work hard now at university. Being a first-generation student, Angeli said she is wary of having too much fun because she feels like she has to have discipline. It is an internal struggle she is still trying to balance.

Angeli thinks of her family and wants to make all the sacrifice worth it. She has three younger siblings looking up to her.

“I’m going to be the first one to pave the path,” Angeli said.

The burden of being the first person in your family to go to college includes a pressure to succeed, and an large emotional step for both parents and students.

Angeli said she cried as she walked from her mailbox to her home after getting her acceptance letter to UW. Her parents were happy that she was able to do something they could not do.

Palomino said that her mother had a mixture of pride, relief and joy.

“Seeing me go to college, her mission was complete,” she said.

Getting to graduation

Although the number of first-generation students at the University of Washington is large, persisting through to graduation has its own many challenges.

The University of Washington developed a Diversity Blueprint in response to a call for a comprehensive action plan in 2010. Its goals reflect parts of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2016 report, whose research to advance diversity and inclusion suggested: inclusion on campus, diversity across all levels of an institution, outreach and recruitment of prospective students, support services for students, inclusive campus climate and further study.

Through federally funded grants, UW has programs that specifically support and focus on first-generation and low-income students. There’s evidence that the programs are effective. The graduation rate within six years for underrepresented minority students at UW is 76.5 percent at UW compared to the national average of 46.1 percent.

Programs dedicated to helping first-generation and minority students include the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity and the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center. And programs like Dream Project, which supports the pipeline from high school to college, and Husky Promise, which fills the tuition gap for eligible students, support students to make higher education more accessible.

But resources are limited and academics is not the only factor that can impact success, said Hall, of the Office of Minority Affairs. Other factors not specifically addressed by those federally funded programs include struggles with finances, finding housing, stress of a new environment and class work.

Family support also plays a huge role, Hall said. Students like Angeli, Acevedo and Palomino would not be enrolled today without the sacrifice and support of their parents and surrounding community.

“They have good support at home. Their parents are championing them,” Hall said.

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