Parents, teachers and the media have hammered home the message for decades: To succeed in life, you need an education.
And kids listened. College enrollment has never been higher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But as more young people move beyond high school, the unique challenges that often face first-generation college students are becoming more apparent. A 2010 NCES study found a wide gap in the graduation rates between four-year students whose parents earned degrees (69 percent) and those whose parents never went to college (40 percent).
(In most circles, a first-generation student is defined as one who had neither parent graduate from a four-year school. Income, race and ethnicity are not factors.)
Marcia Hanlon, director of counseling at Aurora University, says that throughout high school, these students get pumped up about college.
"But when they get here, wow, it's different from high school," Hanlon says.
The realization can hit when the student gets that first syllabus. Confusion, uncertainty, frustration, fear ... all the emotions kick in. Then comes the question: Who can I talk to? For first-generation students, the answer can be elusive, for college — both the campus and the concept — is such unfamiliar territory.
"I kind of see this as an alien landscape," says Rashne Rustom Jehangir, author of "Higher Education and First Generation Students: Cultivating Community, Voice, and Place for the New Majority" (Palgrave MacMillan). "You don't have a guidebook and you don't have people around you to tell you what the language is."
Even your professors don't always speak the same language. Jeff Davis, author of "The First Generation Student Experience" (Stylus), estimates that when he started as an adjunct professor of English at Sonoma State University 15 years ago, "half the professors didn't know what the term was. Many in student support didn't have the same definition in mind.
"A lot of the barriers to success that first-generation status promotes are sort of invisible," says Davis, who was himself a first-gen student.
Another drawback may be the very family members who pushed a student toward college. With no college experience, they may not know what it entails. A student may have only three hours of class a day, they figure, so why can't he or she get a full-time job or baby-sit siblings?
"A faculty member told me about a (commuter student) whose father didn't want her out at night," Hanlon recalls, "and wouldn't let her come to the library to work with other students. The faculty member talked to the father and explained what she needed to do to succeed in class. Then it was OK."
Two different worlds
Students often find themselves torn. Rashne, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, says that these students are forced to negotiate with multiple worlds.
"First-gen students are more likely to be older, to be parents, to be students of color and nonspeakers of English," she says. "So even before college they had multiple roles. They were supporting their families, they were the cultural brokers. Then they get in this alien world and you really feel you can't go home again. You're an interloper in this new world, but you can't go back to your old world."
This one-foot-in-each-world idea can be an asset, though. These students are much more career-oriented; they're in school to get a better job. And Hanlon says that some, especially students from low-income families, are often more resilient.
"They've had to cope with a lot of difficulties," she says. "They need to translate that to a campus environment."
Again, though, college administrators often do the students no favors.
"So much of the way we frame these students is through a deficiency model," Rashne says. "The schools think, 'How do we retain them? How do we deal with what is perceived as lower academic preparation?' But in many ways by the nature of the experiences they've had, things they've done in life, they've managed and negotiated a lot of different environments: work, home, school.
"Think of what it's like filling out an insurance form for Grandma because she doesn't speak English. They're doing things in many cases their peers have never done. But I don't think they see that as skill sets, but as deficiencies."
Some schools, though, are addressing the issue, with freshman orientation sessions that focus on these students, and school counselors such as Hanlon trying to head off potential problems.
"They should have a separate orientation for first-generation parents," Davis adds. While it's too much to ask these parents to be academic advisers for their kids, they can learn how to be supportive.
"I think what some of these pre-enrollment orientations can do is explain the types of behaviors that can be nonproductive for their students, and (explain) not to put other demands on their kids," Davis says. "What they're doing is very difficult and they need to support them generally and not add to the burden."
Tips for students, parents
Marcia Hanlon, director of counseling services at Aurora University, offers this advice:
Don't be afraid to ask questions. There are many services on campus that you are paying for. The schools want to help you succeed.
Read everything. Colleges expect you to handle things more independently. When the teacher hands out the syllabus, an assignment or a study sheet, read it. It will give you information you need to have.
Make the campus your own. You belong there and you're more likely to feel "at home" on campus if you spend time in the library, eating lunch with new friends, or joining clubs or sports teams.
Explore your child's college website. Answers to most questions are readily available.
Help your child define specific goals for college. They need to be able to define why they're in school and what they want to achieve.
Help him or her develop problem-solving and decision-making skills. Both are vital for success in college and in life.
Provide encouragement and hope. College is challenging for first-generation students, so it's essential they know they have your support.
There are several sources of information for potential first-generation college students and their parents:
Collegescoop.com gives parents and students guidance in evaluating and choosing a college, as well as offering individual help for students.
Firstinthefamily.org was launched by the nonprofit What Kids Can Do and features first-generation students talking about the obstacles they faced and the solutions. There are also books and videos available on the topic.
Onpointforcollege.org is a tax-exempt organization that helps students find financial aid, fill out the paperwork and get resources to succeed in college. It also helps them find jobs after graduation.
TRIO (ed.gov, then type "TRIO" in the search field) is a series of eight federal programs designed to assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students and individuals with disabilities.
— W.H.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun