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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine


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.

Carolina Frias

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 with sweat.

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.

Carolina Frias

Sophomore Carolina Frias is one of more than 14,000 UTSA students who are the first in their families to attend college. Recently, she traveled to her family’s home in Belton, Texas. Her father, Jorge Frias, built the three-bedroom home himself.

Photos by Matt Wright-Steel

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.

Procopio Garcia

Freshman Procopio Garcia's move from Edinburg, Texas, to UTSA required a financial sacrifice from his family. The family traveled to San Antonio to take Procopio, who is without a car, grocery shopping.

Photos by Mark Sobhani

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."

Chloe Johnson

"I had family support. ... But my mom went only one semester. I thought I was going to get down here and go back [home] right away. I thought I was next."

Chloe Johnson, a sophomore political science major

Erica Gonzalez

“[My mom] 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.”

Erica Gonzalez, a senior kinesiology major

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."

—Lety Laurel


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