First-gen students help each other through UT


“La Raza” members kayak on Barton Springs in Austin with visiting friends from home during Spring Break 2014. From left to right: Perla de la O (foreground), Zarina Moreno, Xenia Garcia, Bianca de la O, Jose R. Peña. Photo: Courtesy of Perla de la O.

Going from Roma, Texas, a ranching town on the Mexican border, to the University of Texas in Austin is a huge leap, writes Lillian Mongeau in the Washington Monthly.

“It was overwhelming,” Jesús “Nacho” Aguilar, 23, said. “It was also liberating.”

Mongeau, who taught English in Roma for Teach for America, asked Jesús, Tomás González, 23, Perla de la O, 22, and Eduardo Rios, 20, how they succeeded at UT despite the culture shock.

They helped each other, the Roma grads said. They call their homegrown network La Raza or just “the group.”

The group holds potlucks featuring food from home. They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help.

. . . “You think you’re the only one struggling,” Jesús said. “But no. Everyone is in the same boat.”

Seeing each other struggle, knowing you’re not the only one crying in the shower that first desperately hard semester — that’s what gets you through, Tomás said.

Students who’d aced AP Calculus at Roma High discovered they were not prepared for UT classes.

“On his first college test, Jesús, a star student at home, earned a 50 percent,” Mongeau writes. He worried he was letting others down. “When I experienced failure, it wasn’t just my own failure,” he said.

The Roma students found helpful programs at the university, “special scholarships, offices full of mentors, friendly professors and former Roma TFAs who live in Austin and host welcome dinners for freshmen,” writes Mongeau. Now they advise younger students to join organizations and look for help.

“There are people looking out for people like us,” Eduardo said. “But we have to find them.”

Several members of La Raza “posed” for a photo at Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas in 2013. From left to right: Valeria Molina, who now lives in New York City, Jonathan Peña, Travis Pham, Tomás González, Jesús Aguilar and Ziyad Alghamdi, who is not from Roma but was adopted by the group. Photo: Courtesy of Perla de la O.

First to college, but . . . 

In The First-Generation College Experience, Kavitha Cardoza travels to Michigan State with Christopher Feaster (see A college dream lost) to explore why he failed there, like so many students from low-income, non-college-educated families.

He joined an interracial fraternity and made friends with other first-generation students, who also were struggling academically. An adviser tried to help. But going from a small, supportive, all-minority high school to a huge Midwestern university was too much.

“I went in with everyone having these titanical expectations, not to mention a full-ride scholarship. And I’m just like, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, I don’t know, that’s a lot,’” he says.

. . . At the time, his mother had moved out of the homeless shelter and into subsidized housing, but was still struggling.

“Honestly when I was here, my main concern was ‘Is mom going to be OK? Does mom have the money to pay the bills this month? Is she going to go without hot water? Is she going to get evicted?’ That was my worry every day,” he says.

“It’s not uncommon to have students who have had some family trauma that they’ve not dealt with, fall into a depression and stop attending classes,” Monica Gray , programs director for the College Success Foundation, tells Cardoza.

First-generation students need academic and emotional support to succeed in college, says Deborah Bial, the president and founder of The Posse Foundation. It takes more than a scholarship.

The foundation sends low-income, first-generation students in groups of 10 to colleges all over the country. Ninety percent earn a degree.

Diana Sanchez and Bernice Hodge, who grew up in Washington, D.C., go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison on full scholarships. Because they’re Posse scholars, they meet with a tenured faculty member weekly for the first two years. They must ask each of their professors to fill out mid-semester evaluations.

“College is so overwhelming, things happen like nonstop. Deadline this, deadline that, sometimes it doesn’t cross your mind,” says Bernice.

“Also, sometimes you question yourself. These kids might be smarter than me; I don’t see anyone else scrunching up their face. So sometimes it’s also sort of like a pride thing. I don’t want the professor to think that I don’t get it,” Diana adds.

Bernice had a 4.2 grade point average in high school, but professors said her writing wasn’t up to par.  “And I just remember thinking back to high school. Why didn’t anybody catch these mistakes or why didn’t anybody correct me before I got to college?”

Diana’s classmates have traveled to places she’s only read about, she says.

“I’m taking a political science intro to Africa. And I only know the information that I’m learning in the class, but these people, they either had a specialized course in high school or they went to Zimbabwe.”

In her freshman year, her mother, who doesn’t speak English, fell ill, says Diana. “She actually was crying in the voicemail and was like ‘I’m lost, I don’t know where I am right now, come home. I miss you.’”

When her mother fell into a coma last semester, Posse staffers talked to her professors, who let her catch up on assignments while she was home. Diana is now back at UW.

Black male collegians need grit, grades

Black men’s college success on white campuses depends on “grit” as well as academic preparation, according to a study by Ohio State Professor Terrell L. Strayhorn.

Strayhorn tracked 140 mostly first-generation college students at a large public university. He found that those who scored higher on an eight-item measure of grit earned higher course grades after taking into account prior achievement, age, transfer status and school engagement, among other factors.

. . . “The ability to persevere in the face of obstacles is a key to college success for black men. You can’t change where a student grows up, or the quality of the high school he attended. But grit is something that can be taught and instilled in young men and it will have a real effect on their success.”

Grit is usually defined as “a mix of resilience, perseverance, self-control, focus, and positive mindset,” notes Ed Week. People disagree on whether grit is a character trait, or a skill that can be taught.

Strayhorn envisions pre-semester “boot camps” with “learning activities and experiences that (a) nurture students’ capacity to persevere despite setbacks or failure, (b) clarify their personal and professional goals, and (c) provide them strategies for overcoming obstacles to achieving such goals.”

‘I am the first’

In her college admissions essay, Sara recalled her disastrous start as a counselor in the summer bridge program for new students at her San Jose charter school, Downtown College Prep. An incoming 12th grader, she couldn’t control her group of new ninth graders. She wanted to quit — but she didn’t. Sara and her fellow counselors stuck with it, took control and turned their rowdy crew into winners of the spirit award.

When Sara started at Santa Clara University, she felt that she didn’t belong. But she stuck with it, joined clubs and made a place for herself. She had to leave for a year when the money ran out. She worked, saved, came back to finish her bachelor’s degree and now works at a high-tech company.

I met Sara when I was reporting and writing Our School, a book about DCP’s struggles to prepare disadvantaged students for college. I saw her last week at DCP’s event promoting their college success report, I Am the First. The school spent two years surveying its graduates — successful and struggling — to determine what influences college success for low-income, first-generation college students.

At the event, students and graduates held up signs: “I am the first in my family to learn English . . . I am the first in my family to go to high school . . . I am the first in my family to join a college fraternity . . . I am the first to study law.”

DCP is 90 percent low-income and 96 percent Latino; 80 percent of students enter with below-grade-level skills in reading and math. Forty-one percent of parents haven’t completed high school (or, often, started it).

Nearly 500 students have graduated since the first graduating class of ’04. The graduation rate for the first three classes is 40 percent — more than four times the rate for low-income students nationwide.

Those who drop out can talk to a school counselor about how to return to college. One graduate worked for three years in a factory, tightening screws, before going back to community college. He’s been accepted at a University of California at Santa Cruz. He wants to be a history teacher.

What leads to success?

“Empowered” students who take responsibility for their education are more likely to “advocate for themselves” and earn a degree, the survey found. DCP will encourage students to take leadership roles, such as Sara’s stint as a summer bridge counselor.

College counseling should include career counseling: For first-generation students, job one is qualifying for a job.

Teachers are the most important influence on students’ college plans, so DCP plans to make “every teacher a college counselor.”

The school also will devote more energy to helping parents handle the college transition. Sixty percent of DCP students live at home while attending college to save money.

“A college plan must include a financial plan,” the college counselor stressed. Two-thirds of students who leave college do so for financial reasons.

Finally, “college is an inside game.” Students need to be taught the unwritten rules. What do you do about a dreadful roommate? How do you form a study group?  When should you ask a professor for help? DCP will “teach college as a second language.”

No grit, no glory

Only 9 percent of low-income students complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24. American RadioWorks reporter Emily Hanford looks at the importance of Grit, Luck and Money in determining who persists to a degree.

Houston’s YES Prep, a high-performing charter school for low-income minority students, is trying to help first-generation college students cope with challenges and persist to a degree. Even academically strong students have trouble in college, reports Hanford.

. . . at YES, where most of the students are from poor families, close to 70 percent of students score as well on the SAT as students from middle-income families, and they score significantly better than other minority students in America.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: Less than 10 percent of YES Prep alumni take remedial classes when they get to college. Nationally, as many as 60 percent of incoming college students have to take some sort of remedial class.

. . .  Based on academic preparation alone, one could reasonably expect that 80 or 90 percent of the students would graduate from college.

But that didn’t happen.

Nearly all YES Prep graduates go to college, usually to four-year institutions. But only 40 percent of students in the class of ’01 completed a college degree in six years, 28 percent dropped out and the rest are still trying to finish.

YES Prep gives students a lot of support to get them ready for college — maybe too much. In college, the support system is gone. Often their parents can’t help.

The school has hired two counselors to work with alumni and created partnerships with several private colleges that can provide counseling and support to first-generation college students.

Grit is as important as intelligence in determining success, believes Angela Lee Duckworth, a middle and high school teacher turned psychology professor.

She defines grit as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” In a paper, she writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

Grit can be learned, Duckworth believes.

In honor of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, I’m making today Grit Day on the blog. Here’s New York Times columnist Joe Nocera on Reading, Math and Grit, a response to Tough’s book. And here’s Tough’s chapter on Duckworth’s research.

Money isn’t everything

Money isn’t everything. Five years ago, donors offered to pay college tuition for all graduates of public schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Students can use the offer at any public college or university in the state. While 81 percent of graduates receive a scholarship, only 54 percent have earned a degree or remain on track to graduate, according to the Hechinger Report.

College-funding programs exist in 15 to 20 cities, including Denver, Pittsburgh, New Haven, Connecticut and Hammond, Indiana.

In Pittsburgh’s program, the percentage of scholarship recipients who return to their public four-year colleges after freshman year trails the state average by nearly three points, said Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, which launched in 2007 with a $100 million commitment by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The picture for community college students on Pittsburgh Promise scholarships is brighter: 70.3 percent return for their second year, about 10 points above the national average. Graduation data are not yet available because the program is so new.

In Denver, half of the 199 students in the first class eligible for that city’s promise-style program came back for their fourth year of college, said Rana Tarkenton, director of student services at the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

Most promise-style scholarships reward residency in a school district, city or state, rather than academic merit, though some set minimum grade-point averages or college-entrance exam scores. The effect is to encourage less-prepared students to try college.

To keep their scholarships, Kalamazoo Promise students must be enrolled full time in a two-year or four-year college and maintain a C average. The program’s graduation rates are lowest at two-year colleges, as they are in the rest of the U.S: only a third of the Class of 2006 who attended community college had graduated by the fall of 2010, program statistics show. The following year’s class didn’t do much better. Nationally, just 11.6 percent of students at public two-year colleges complete degrees within six years.

Many students aren’t prepared for the academic or social challenges of higher education, said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

“It’s especially hard for students who come from poor areas and don’t have support networks,” said Jones, one of the founders of Twenty-First Century Scholars, a promise-style program founded in Indiana in the 1990s. “Just giving them the opportunity to go to college isn’t enough. They need support once they get there – mentoring, ways for students to connect.”

Students who are the first in their family to attend college have to learn how to navigate the system, said University of Michigan freshman Adwoa Bobo, a pre-med student on a Promise scholarship. While her tuition is covered, she has to pay for room, board, books and other expenses.

“The hardest adjustment for me is being able to manage my time, and being able to study effectively,” Bobo said. “In high school, I was able to pass through without studying too much. In college, you cannot get good grades without taking notes and studying every night for each class and reading your books thoroughly. You must work hard. I’ve been told that college was harder than high school, but you never know what they mean until you’re here.”

Students who live at home while attending community college or a four-year commuter school can earn a degree at a very low cost in dollars, but those who aren’t willing to invest their time and energy aren’t going to get very far.