Beating the odds: First-generation students face cultural, academic, and financial obstacles to earning a college degree

First-generation students overcome a complex series of academic, economic, and cultural obstacles to find college success. Through integrated academic coaching and peer support, Mills is helping them get there.

No comments

By Dawn Cunningham ’85

Photos by Allisun Novak

“You all are what makes Mills great. Entering spaces, lifting voices, and creating a path for generations to come… I invite you all to ask yourself, who are you showing up for, and why?”

Emmely Tot Mairena directed these words to the whole community that gathered on the meadow behind Mills Hall during the convocation speech she and Katie Funes gave in September as co-presidents of the Associated Students of Mills College. But her remarks have particular relevance for those, like Funes and herself, who are first-generation students.

One-third of the College’s undergraduates are first-generation—that is, neither parent has a four-year degree. Many are economically disadvantaged—three quarters qualify for need-based federal financial aid. And although half are Latina and one in five are white, students of all ethnicities fit into this group.

Each first-generation student who completes her degree is a pioneer for her family. She charts a path unknown to her predecessors, radically altering life opportunities not only for herself, but for any children she might have.

Such opportunities don’t come without hardship. College can be challenging for anyone, but first-generation students across the country face additional barriers: They are less likely to have taken rigorous college-prep courses in high school and so tend to struggle more with academic work and earn lower grades than their peers. Their median family income is less than half that of other students , and they often work long hours to support themselves. And those who are students of color can encounter racial bias throughout the system. 

Nationwide, the odds against first-generation students completing college are formidable. A long-term study of people who were high-school sophomores in 2002 found that only 20 percent of first-generation students completed a bachelor’s degree within 10 years, while that completion rate was twice as high among those with at least one parent who was a college graduate (sometimes called “continuing-generation students”). At Mills, programs and personnel committed to educational equity have helped diminish these barriers.

Tot Mairena’s mother, an immigrant to Los Angeles from Honduras, always insisted that her daughter attend college. In fact, first-generation students are more likely than their continuing-generation peers to report that they attend college because their parents want them to do so. Yet their parents lack the experience to help them navigate the process of selecting, applying to, and paying for college. “My mom was under the impression that college would only cost about $1,000,” Tot Mairena says. “When I told her what I’d really need to pay, she was shocked.” Tot Mairena considered attending a community college or state university but, at a college fair, she met an enthusiastic admissions officer, Maria Mejia ’13, who convinced her to apply to Mills.

Campus culture tend to assume students are relatively free of family obligations and financial responsibilities… Educators may fail to recognize the challenges that first-generation students face⁠—and fail to give them the academic, administrative, and emotional support they need to thrive in college.

Many first-generation students at Mills credit teachers, counselors, and admission officers for guiding them to college. Lilian Gonzalez ’09 found mentors in her Long Beach high school’s AVID college readiness program. “They pushed me to take up extracurricular activities,” she recalls, and one directed her to see a presentation about Mills by Marisa Quiroz ’01. “When I heard Marisa speak with such eloquence and warmth and confidence, I thought, ‘This is it. That’s who I want to be.’”

Inspiring admissions staff represent only the first step. Mills has also been seeking to pull down administrative and financial barriers to entry. Last year, the College dropped the requirement that students submit SAT or ACT test scores with their admission applications. A national study found that first-generation students often don’t fulfill this requirement—and that these scores are not good indicators of a student’s academic potential. And in fall 2018 Mills will reduce its tuition by 36 percent—a move designed, in part, to lessen the sticker-shock of private college tuition for first-generation students and their families.

In addition, Mills participates in several initiatives to help first-generation, low-income high-school students enter any college. Among them are the College’s 45-year-old Upward Bound program, which provides academic tutoring, and the new Oakland Promise College Pathway Partnership, through which Mills offers financial aid and mentoring to high school students in Oakland.

The college environment itself can present an unfamiliar world of differing social motivations and goals that can be daunting for first-generation students. “For most students, college is an opportunity to pursue their own passions,” notes Pedro Nava, assistant professor of education at Mills. “Among first-generation students, however, there’s more of an expectation that education is a pathway to social mobility.”

“I tried to hide the fact that my parents had little education and that my family had a history of mental illness. I was worried that people would judge me on my background, rather than seeing me as another student with great aspirations.”

Avalon Baldwin ’14

Nicole Stephens, a social psychologist and professor at Northwestern University, has analyzed another aspect of the “cultural mismatch,” as she calls it, between first-generation students and higher education institutions. First-generation students, Stephens says, are spurred by “interdependent” values—they often are attending college in order to help their families and give back to their communities. These motives contrast with the “independent” norms and values dominant in higher education in America, where college is typically seen as a way for an individual to gain independence from family and to expand one’s own knowledge.

Chelsea Ekholm ’13 felt this mismatch acutely. “I struggled a lot emotionally in my first year,” she says. After losing her father to illness when she was young, Ekholm had developed a deep sense of responsibility for and connection to her mother. Living on campus, she was homesick much of the time. “I had an image of college life in which students weren’t supposed to want to go home; my mom thought the same thing,” says Ekholm. “I wish I had known that there was no right way to ‘do college,’ and that it was OK to go back.”

That interdependence is further evidenced in the multiple roles first-generation students frequently fill in their families—including a sense of duty that doesn’t end when they enroll in college. “I had a hard time leaving home in Los Angeles because I was the one who held the house down while my mom and grandma worked,” says Tot Mairena. “I took care of my younger brother, cooked and cleaned, served as a translator for my grandma.” Such obligations can pressure many first-generation students to leave school before finishing their degrees.

In some cases, first-generation students must also continue to contribute to the family financially. Gonzalez worked 35 hours a week, in jobs on and off campus, to pay for tuition and books and to send money back to her parents, who had immigrated from Mexico and Ecuador. Occasionally a professor would suggest that academic work should take precedence. “People would tell me to be more selfish, because college was ‘my time,’” she says. “But I already felt selfish and privileged to be attending college. Seeing the women in my extended family work so hard, I wanted to use the privileges I enjoyed—speaking English, having an education, and being a citizen—to give back to them.” Because of supportive faculty and staff on campus who understood the pressures she faced, she says, “Mills is a place where I felt very accepted.”

That sense of acceptance is far from the rule. Northwestern’s Stephens found that the cultural mismatch she identified often results in first-generation students feeling they don’t even belong in college—a feeling that can undermine their academic performance. Campus cultures tend to assume students are relatively free of family obligations and financial responsibilities. Because of such assumptions, Nava points out, educators may fail to recognize the challenges that first-generation students face—and fail to give them the academic, administrative, and emotional support they need to thrive in college.

In this environment, low-income, first-generation students often feel pressure to “pass” as middle-class and may be hesitant to ask for help when they need it. “I never talked about my family with classmates,” says Avalon Baldwin ’14. “I tried to hide the fact that my parents had little education and that my family had a history of mental illness. I was worried that people would judge me on my background, rather than seeing me as another student with great aspirations.”

“Many of the first-generation students I work with are used to being engaged with their communities at home. I take them to events around immigration rights and social justice. Students have told me that this engagement with the community is one reason they stay at Mills.”

Arely Zimmerman, assistant professor of ethnic studies

During her junior year, Baldwin’s mother ended up in a homeless shelter in Berkeley. Because of this tragic turn in her family’s circumstances, Baldwin knew she didn’t have the bandwidth to give all her classes the attention they required, but she was hesitant to ask for help. “I felt I was outing myself as a person who has all these problems,” she says. Finally, she pushed herself to explain the situation to her advisor, Associate Professor of Biology Jared Young, who responded with empathy and enabled her to drop a physics class. With her academic pressures relieved, she says, “I finished the rest of my classes with straight A’s.”

The risk of exposing one’s family background has become particularly serious this year for one type of first-generation student: undocumented immigrants, including those temporarily protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, also known as “Dreamers.” The future of DACA has been uncertain since the Trump administration announced that the program would be rescinded. Although Mills has pledged to provide a safe space for undocumented students and an endowed scholarship fund has been established for them by the Alumnae Association of Mills College (AAMC), Dreamers’ college experience is often overshadowed by legal and administrative obstacles.

Doraly (her nickname is used here to protect her identity), a first-year student at Mills, is one such Dreamer. Her family moved from Mexico to Independence, Kansas, when she was three. “My parents always told me we were in this country to get an education, so there was never any doubt that I would go to college.” She chose Mills in part for the financial support it could provide DACA students and for its welcoming reputation. Still, since she is ineligible for federal financial aid or work-study funds, Doraly has to figure out how to piece together private scholarships to cover tuition, how to work on campus, and how to get health insurance. “People don’t understand how difficult it is for DACA students to navigate campus systems right now. There isn’t much clarity about how to provide us with support as DACA comes to an end,” she says.

The stakes involved in completing college are high. On average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than high school graduates. If colleges don’t help first-generation students surmount the barriers they face, the opportunity to earn a degree risks becoming even more of an inherited privilege, further deepening the chasms between socio-economic classes.

Mills has been remarkably successful in providing students with a high degree of social mobility. Here, first-generation students graduate at rates close to those of their continuing-generation peers. Mills also has been recognized for excellence in enrolling and graduating low-income students by the US Department of Education, and the College has achieved a high “mobility rate”—enabling students from low-income families to achieve high earnings after graduation—according to researchers with the Equality of Opportunity Project.

“I learned that being first generation was not something that I had to overcome, but something that I could highlight. Mills reinforced my commitment to use the privilege I gained through education to help others.”

Lilian Gonzalez ’09

One key to Mills’ success is a program that has supported first-generation students on campus since 1989: the Summer Academic Workshop (SAW). Each summer, SAW brings about 20 first-year, first-generation students to live on campus for four weeks of intensive college-prep courses, study skills workshops, leadership development activities, and a campus life orientation. During the school year, SAW provides students with faculty and staff advisors who help them navigate administrative systems and college cultures. And each cohort of SAW students becomes an important source of peer-to-peer support. (In SAW’s earlier years, the program also included students of color who were not necessarily first-generation.)

“SAW really works,” says Lea Robinson, who was a first-generation student and now oversees SAW as the assistant dean of students. “During the summer program, students often question whether they belong at college. But by the time fall semester classes start, SAW has pushed them so hard academically that they are calm and confident.”

Kirie Lange ’12 agrees. Although her parents never made it to college, after SAW, she says, “I felt at least as well prepared as my friends whose parents did attend college. I knew who to go to for help, how to organize my time, how to pick the right classes. I figured out how to learn.”

SAW also works because the program’s instructors directly address the socio-cultural aspects of higher education that can alienate first-generation students. They recognize the strengths in students’ relationships to family and community. Research by Northwestern’s Nicole Stephens suggests that such an approach is one of the most effective ways to help first-generation students beat the odds against them. In a comparative study, she found that entering first-generation students benefitted most from an orientation panel that explicitly examined the ways social class affects the college experience. During the semester, students who attended these panels sought help from professors and other campus resources more often than those who didn’t. They achieved grade-point averages similar to peers with college-educated parents.

Last summer, Professor Pedro Nava taught a SAW course called Race, Power, and Gender. “I had students talk about their own biographies and use the course readings to analyze their experience of education and US society,” says Nava, who had also been a first-generation student. “It was an opportunity to center the lived experiences of these students.”

Emmely Tot Mairena recalls learning in SAW about the concept of social stratification. “That helped explain the challenges I’ve faced. Having a language that reflected and acknowledged my experience was so powerful.”

The College’s Hellman Science Summer and Math Fellows Program gives entering first-year students a similar boost. Though not designed specifically for first-generation students, it provides a beneficial bridge to college. Former Hellman fellow Liz Newman ’14, who is now pursuing a doctoral degree in immunology and microbiology at New York Medical College, recalls, “I had no idea what to expect from college; no one I knew had ever lived in a dorm. I had no one to ask, ‘How is studying for college different from studying for high school?’ That was answered during the Hellman program. I credit that program with my success.”

Mills’ summer bridge programs, however, don’t have the capacity for every student who would benefit from intensive college preparation. A recent campus initiative, Being the First, extends the SAW approach to all first-generation students through a series of weekly seminars during the academic year where students can discuss college experiences and connect with each other. It also provides workshops on subjects such as how to read for classes more efficiently.

And the College continues to cultivate a culture that recognizes the needs of first-generation students. Close attention from faculty advisors who understand their challenges can make a big difference—as in Avalon Baldwin’s case—so Mills professors and the provost’s office have been developing more holistic and cooperative advising models that help students identify their strengths, articulate their dreams, and create plans to achieve them. The Associated Students of Mills College and the AAMC recently launched an initiative to encourage networking between first-generation students and alumnae, as well.

Many first-generation students have found role models for academic success among faculty in ethnic studies and other departments. Lilian Gonzalez says, “I found myself reflected in these professors. They already knew the issues that came with being first generation—I didn’t have to explain my story.” Katie Funes says she’s inspired by Arely Zimmerman, assistant professor of ethnic studies, who is mentoring Funes as she conducts a research project on Central American refugees. “Many of the first-generation students I work with are used to being engaged with their communities at home,” Zimmerman says. “So I try to act as a facilitator to connect them to the broader community beyond campus. I take them to events around immigration rights and social justice. Students have told me that this engagement with the community is one reason they stay at Mills.”

“My time at Mills was a turning point for me to see the strengths in being first generation,” says Gonzalez. “I learned that being first generation was not something that I had to overcome, but something that I could highlight. Mills reinforced my commitment to use the privilege I gained through education to help others.” Gonzalez earned a master’s as a marriage and family therapist, opened a private practice, and recently returned to Mills to work as a student support coordinator and therapist.

Community engagement often continues to be a priority for first-generation students after they graduate. These alumnae are showing up, as students and professionals, to make the path a little easier for those who come after them. As a fellow at 10,000 Degrees, a nonprofit that helps low-income students in San Francisco’s North Bay region get into and through college, Baldwin mentored high school students in the nonprofit’s summer program—a program she herself had participated in five years earlier. “I felt I could help these students by sharing my own story and pushing them to do all the great things they dream of doing,” she says. At the end of her fellowship, Baldwin was hired into a permanent staff position at the organization.

And, in addition to earning a master of public administration and launching a career in private school admissions, Kirie Lange continues to work with first-generation students in high school—including those at her alma mater in San Diego—to show them a path toward college. “My high school volleyball coach still asks me to come back to talk to the team. The students in my high school have so few opportunities to see first hand what college success looks like.” Of all she has accomplished, and all she has given, Lange says, “This is for me, this is for my family, this is for my ancestors, this is for my community.”