Carolina Frias grew up watching her dad slog to work in paint-covered jeans and a work shirt. Her friends' fathers wore business suits and carried briefcases. Hers carried a toolbox.
Photo by Matt Wright-Steel...
At night, he returned home slouched with fatigue, paint
stuck to his eyelashes and hair, jeans ripped and shirt soaked
He had wanted to be a doctor. Instead, Jorge Frias had
to quit school in the fourth grade to help take care of his
brothers and sisters. His first job was peddling snow cones,
hot dogs, gum and corn—anything that would sell on the
streets of Mexico. He also shined shoes for spare change to
take home and support his family.
Jorge now runs his own remodeling business in Belton,
Texas. It's his money that pays for Carolina to attend UTSA.
He wants a different life for her and her two younger sisters.
A better one.
So Carolina, just 19 years old, is expected to change the
trajectory of her family. As the first in her family to graduate
from high school and attend college, she knows she's not
cramming for college exams and writing essays just for her
own sake. It's for her entire family, she said.
"I really just want to make my parents happy. They've gone
through so much," Carolina said. "I feel like if I don't go to college,
I'm going to be a big disappointment. He worked so hard
to get that money to send us to college. That's all he wanted."
At UTSA, more than 14,000 students are the first in their
families to attend college. That's almost half of the entire student
population. These students come to college carrying
more baggage than pillows and clothes, researchers say. They
carry the responsibility of being pioneers and role models for
younger siblings as well as the expectation that they will continue
to help with finances and other home responsibilities.
What they face on campus is no easier. Without a parent
or sibling to ask for guidance, they often don't know who to
go to for help with classes, financial aid and degree plans.
"Not everybody is at the same starting line," said Laura I.
Rendón, professor in the College of Education and Human
Development's educational leadership and policy studies
department. Also a first-generation college graduate, she
has researched access and retention of low-income first-generation
students for 20 years.
"There are problems with finances, they don't know what
questions to ask, they don't know who to turn to when they
have questions about college. Very importantly, going to
college for them is significant because they're assuming a
new identity, one that is not present in the family—one of a
college-educated person. They sometimes struggle with that.
It makes them different from the rest of their family."
They also feel like they're different from their classmates,
said Leticia Duncan-Brosnan, executive director of the Tomás
Rivera Center for Student Success.
"Research will tell you first-generation students have difficulty
getting integrated into the community so they don't get
involved socially or academically. It's a whole different world
for them and they feel like outsiders," said Duncan-Brosnan,
herself a first-generation college graduate. "Family members
don't understand what it takes to get through college. The
expectation is high to financially contribute to the family."
The stress is so high, in fact, that the decision to remain
in school or drop out is usually made within the first six
weeks of class, she said. And all too often, students decide
to return home.
First-generation college students are far less likely to obtain
a degree compared to students whose parents went to
college, said Anne-Marie Nuñez, assistant professor in the
educational leadership and policy department. Even if they
share similar academic preparation, finances and college
experiences, students who are the first in their families to attend
college receive degrees at lower rates, she said.
"First-generation students really need a lot of help in
terms of gaining what sociologists call cultural capital and
social capital, which are the resources and skills that are
related to understanding what going to college is like," said
Nuñez, who has been studying the population for 13 years.
"They need help with even just the daily navigation of college,
how to interact with faculty and how to make the most
of their college experience."
Procopio Garcia did make it through the first six weeks
of school, but just barely. The freshman architecture major
spent those critical first weeks borrowing books from classmates
because he couldn't afford to buy his own. When he
couldn't borrow, he turned in assignments late.
For him and his family, his move from Edinburg, Texas, to
UTSA was a sacrifice, but a necessary one. With a disabled
father who can't work and a mother who's employed as a
custodial supervisor at a high school, the family of six pulls
in less than $30,000 a year.
Although Procopio received scholarship money, there's
still the cost of books, housing and food to consider. "I'm barely
making it," he said. His efficiency apartment is bare except
for two twin beds, a desktop computer on a utilitarian desk
and a small chest of drawers. Waving a hand around the room,
he said everything but the extra bed belongs to his roommate.
"My parents right now don't have enough money to be
taking care of themselves over there and to be taking care
of me over here."
Procopio decided he was college-bound when he was
in middle school. Neither of his parents completed high
school, but like Carolina's family, they pushed their four
children to do better. But then his father fell 20 feet off an
oil rig at work. His shattered femur and the bolt that got
embedded in his cranium meant college was no longer
guaranteed for his son.
"You know, I used to have those big expectations [about
school] and a big imagination," he said. "But after my dad's
accident, I was like, I don't know if I'll be able to go to college
because I need to help out. But they told me that they wanted
the best for me and to get a better education than them.
"It's all going to be worth it at the end of this. Not only will
I have a degree and maybe a secure job, but I will also be
able to help them out with their financial stuff."
Carolina also wants to complete college to help her family.
Her parents and two sisters live in the same small three-bedroom
house that her father built by himself. Her handprints
are embedded in the concrete porch; her gold-framed quinceañera portrait hangs prominently over their living room couch.
They sacrificed so much for her to go to school, she said.
She wants to be an orthodontist so she can pay them back.
But she's sacrificed, too. In high school, she took enough
dual credit and AP courses that she entered college last
year as a sophomore.
The former prom queen juggled school work with crosscountry,
band, color guard and soccer. Her days began at
5:40 a.m. with track, and ended when soccer practice was
over at 9 p.m. Often, she'd stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. doing
homework for the next day. When it came time for college
applications and financial aid forms, she filled those out in
what little time she had left in the day.
"You don't understand what it's like to have to do everything
by yourself," she said. "Where I am from, all my friends,
all their parents went to college and all their siblings went to
college. I do feel like it was harder for me."
But her parents nudged her, sometimes not so gently, to
apply to as many schools as she could. She was accepted
into every one of the seven colleges she applied to.
"My mom would ask, 'Did you do this? Did you check
this?' I would get so stressed," she said. "I broke out so bad my
senior year. I had pimples everywhere."
The route to college was also difficult for 19-year-old Chloe
Johnson. The sophomore political science major was struggling
through school and the arduous application and financial aid
processes when Hurricane Ike tore her Houston home apart.
"The windows busted, the roof caved in, the roof in the
guest bedroom was gone," she said. "We had to leave our home.
Then the stress of it being my senior year and trying to get into
college and everything, I had a breakdown right there in class.
"I'm a strong person, but it was really hard. It being your
senior year, it's supposed to be your happiest time. Turns out
mine was the worst time."
But Chloe, who wants to be the first African American female
to serve on the Supreme Court, did get into the college
of her choice. Her mom didn't make it past the first semester
in college—Chloe worried that she wouldn't either. But, despite
the odds, she pulled through.
"I had family support. Oh, my mom was on it," she said. "But my mom went only one semester. I thought I was going to get down here and go back right away. I thought I was next. I thought the same cycle was going to repeat itself."
That cycle is something that is often in the minds of first-generation
college students, Rendón, the UTSA professor,
said. Breaking the cycle of poverty in her family is what
propelled her to go to college instead of getting a job right
out of high school, as her mom expected her to do. Both
her parents only completed elementary school. Her mother
worked as a waitress from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., living in Laredo
on $15 a week plus tips.
Even in college, Rendón continued to help her mom financially,
often sending money home, even if it was from her
student financial aid.
"I was very determined because having grown up in
poverty and seeing my mother go through what she went
through, I said, 'No. This isn't going to happen to me,' " she said.
"For some people, that would devastate them and they would
never get out of poverty. But for me it had the opposite effect."
Very often, families of first-generation college students
don't understand the college experience, from student life to
credit hours. They don't realize that a 3-credit-hour class, attended
only three days a week, translates to several hours of
study outside of the classroom, Duncan-Brosnan said.
Even though Erica Gonzalez's mother never went to college,
she knows the struggles her daughter experiences. Erica
still lives with her mother and 18-year-old brother, Erik, at
home in San Antonio. She drives her brother to high school
before her college day begins. And she works on campus so
she can help supplement the cost of her education.
Her mother often cries when she sees Erica stressed before
an exam. Knowing only broken English, she can't help
much academically, but she does something better, Erica said.
"It is the motivation she gives us," she said. "She gives us
examples of what not to do. She tells us to keep going. It's
because she didn't go [to college] that she pushes so hard."
Going to school, she said, "is an opportunity that a lot of
people don't take. I just have a great family that supports me,
they're behind me 100 percent. They've always [said] that going
to school you get a better education, a better job. That's
what I see. It's a medium to get from point A to point Z. It's the
entire alphabet in between."
Already a senior kinesiology major, Erica expects to
graduate in May 2011. There are lots of similar stories at UTSA,
Duncan-Brosnan said. But there need to be more.
Programs like TRIO and Gear Up already target first-generation
college students. UTSA admissions counselors
and financial aid advisers are available for help with applications
and forms. The Tomás Rivera Center offers academic
and social support programs, specifically geared toward first-year
students and their families.
But, "we need to target them earlier," Duncan-Brosnan said.
She's currently seeking grant funding to extend a pilot program
that pushes first-generation students to become more academically
and socially integrated and, hopefully, improve retention
and graduation rates. "We are calling students, asking about
advising, asking about their classes. We are very intrusive."
Above all else, Rendón said, this at-risk population needs
to be validated. Too often they have been told they aren't
smart enough, that they can't make it through school.
"There are many smart and talented students that grow
up in the barrios, ghettos and reservations," she said. "We
need to open as many doors as possible to them. We need to
help them out and assure them that they can do it."
Completing their education with a degree in hand can
change generations, Duncan-Brosnan said.
"We know that if one in the family goes to college, the
siblings will follow. The cousins will follow and their children
will go to college," she said. "It's always hard to be the
first one, but we want the students to know that they're not
alone. We let them know it's going to change their lives and
the lives of their families."
Carolina knows she can do it—she has to. There's too much
riding on her success, she said. There are her parents whom she
can't disappoint, and there is that promise of a higher future
income earned with a degree. But most important, there are her
two younger sisters, ages 16 and 7, who are watching her. They
need her to succeed so they will know that they can do it, too.
"My sister tells me, 'I want to be like you. I want to do everything
you do,' " she said. "Failure can't be an option."