First-generation college students could be at a disadvantage

Thirty-one percent of U’s first-year students are first-generation college students.

Boa Lee

Being a college student is tough.

But some University students said being a first-generation college student, where neither parent earned a four-year undergraduate degree, could put them at a greater disadvantage.

First-generation college students made up 31 percent of the University’s first-year students in fall 2003.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, it is more difficult for first-generation students to stay in college and get their degree.

The study, completed in 1998, also found that they are more likely to enroll part time and to attend two-year public institutions than their non-first-generation counterparts.

Novella Velasquez, a first-year Carlson School of Management student, said she had to figure out on her own how to stay on task, pay for tuition and balance school and a social life.

Velasquez, whose mother is unemployed and father is in the army, said although no one in her family was able to tell her what to anticipate, they are still her biggest supporters.

“My mom pushed me to join clubs and get scholarships,” Velasquez said. “And I am making a path for my little sister.”

Velasquez and other first-generation students are modern-day pioneers in their families, said Vesna Hampel, acting program director of the Learning and Academic Skills Center.

“Since they are the first to attend college in their families, they may have to forgive themselves if they stumble a little bit,” Hampel said.

Many first-generation students have also had to overcome language hurdles to succeed at the University.

Poua Ricky Vang, a nursing senior, said she has struggled to master the written word. English is Vang’s second language and neither of her parents speak English.

“It’s hard to go through a book,” Vang said. “Sometimes there were no Hmong terms for some English words.”

Norma Gutierrez Shanesy of the Office of Admissions said the University does not have a program to specifically recruit first-generation students.

Gutierrez Shanesy said first-generation students generally do face added pressure, but the University has services to help them.

She said the big difference between those who graduate and those who do not is whether the individual seeks help.

“(First-generation students) do need to be somewhat aggressive about that,” Gutierrez Shanesy said.

Velasquez said the University almost kicked her out of school last semester for not paying her tuition bill. She said she did not know what to do.

“I had always gone to seminars that say ‘Don’t let money stop you,’ ” Velasquez said. “From talking to (advisers and friends) I got $7,500 in scholarships to go to school.”

Until this year, University officials said they had not tracked the size, demographics or performance of first-generation students.

“It just wasn’t on the radar,” said Ronald Matross, senior analyst in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.

Hampel said she sees a few first-generation college students in her office and said they tend to get frustrated easily if their academic performance is below what they had hoped.

“They are more tempted to drop out because they aren’t expected to finish their degree. No one (in their family) has,” she said.

Vang and Velasquez agree there were days when they questioned why they were at the University.

“Seeing how far I’ve come, it’d be such a waste to throw it all away,” Vang said. “You’ve got to have your lows to have your highs.”