First-generation students face unique challenges in the college process

In Campus News, News
(Raymond Pelayo / Daily Titan)

As a double-major freshman in human services and women and gender studies, Anthony Vasquez said he struggled with finding a place to belong on campus and lacked a strong familial foundation when it came to his college education.

“I didn’t know how to make Cal State Fullerton my home,” Vasquez said.

In fall 2007, there were 7,241 undergraduate students out of 37,130 whose parents never attended college. This semester, the number has risen to 11,378 out of 34,800 CSUF undergraduates.

This indicates a 57 percent increase over the past decade.

Vasquez is one of the 11,378 students.

He struggled with his college application and with learning to find his way upon entering college. Vasquez’ parents did not attend college, so he knew he couldn’t turn to them for assistance.

He searched for resources and found Freshman Programs, which has since been renamed First Year Experience Program to accommodate both freshmen and transfer students. Vasquez was assigned a peer mentor who helped him navigate through the beginning stage of his college life.

Vasquez’ peer mentor spent time with him when he didn’t know who to turn to, taking him to events and pushing him out of his comfort zone to help him figure out what he would enjoy.

Grateful for the help he received as a fresh face, Vasquez now gives back to the program that helped with his growth by serving as a peer mentor to help the new generation of students who are the first in their families to go to college.

“When you’re a first-generation student and your family didn’t go to college, then you can’t really get that help,” Vasquez said.

(Raymond Pelayo / Daily Titan)

First-year pre-business major Jose Bryan Altamirano said he would not have known how to apply for colleges. He turned to his high school counselor for help, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get the same help from his parents, neither of whom went to college.

He still faces a few struggles, like scheduling classes and working with his family, who lack the same appreciation for a higher education.

“It’s like walking in a dark corridor — you don’t really know which path to take, or what steps would normally be the best steps,” Altamirano said.

Now that Altamirano is in college, he seeks support from the First Year Experience Program and the Educational Opportunity Program, which help advise him on what to do.

He plans to use his college experience to build a brighter future and make a living.

“I just feel obligated to pursue this educational path in order to prove my family proud but also to make a living for myself,” Altamirano said.

Second-year sociology major Monique Ramos shares the same sentiments. Although her parents are not active in her school life, they still try to motivate her.

“Since they’ve never come on campus and haven’t seen the campus, they don’t really know what to help me in,” Ramos said. “But they’re always encouraging me to do good in school.”

Education was always important growing up for Ramos, despite her being the first in her family to attend college. Ramos said her parents and grandparents felt that having the chance to receive a degree means the chance at a better life.

Ramos said she wants to do the best she can with the opportunity she’s been given since most of her family had to immediately enter the workforce after graduating high school.

“Every day I’m here, I’m here for a reason. I have a younger sibling who’s looking up to me,” Ramos said.

Navigating college without assistance at home, Ramos found on-campus role models like her former Chicano/a studies professor José Zamora who encouraged her to apply to be a McNair Scholar, a program that places first-generation students on track to receive their doctorate degree.

Dawn Person, a CSUF professor of educational leadership and director of the Center for Research on Educational Access and Leadership, attributes the increase of first-generation college students to immigration.

“We’re affordable. We represent ourselves to the community at large as being a campus that is open and supportive of diversity,” Person said. “That’s kind of our market niche if you will, the kind of students we tend to attract.”

Even though some parents may have received higher education in other countries, the experience there is completely different than the college experience here, Person said.

She said that some parents don’t understand that higher education is an investment or know how to help their children navigate the different pathways to academic success, which is not limited strictly to textbook academics.

Person was also a first-generation college graduate. Unaware of all the opportunities available to her in college, she said she wasn’t able to take full advantage of all of the programs her school had to offer.

When serving as a student leader, Person said she picked up lessons that couldn’t be learned in a classroom setting. However, she also missed out on other opportunities like studying abroad, that she didn’t discover until late in her college career.

Person encourages students to seek out all of the resources CSUF offers, including the Division of Student Affairs, the First Year Experience, the academic affairs personnel who help with advising and Financial Services Support. These resources provide opportunities for students to develop connections with faculty members and students, through which they can gain confidence to branch out.

“Those kinds of things shape you in ways that the university itself can’t. It’s a different exposure for you, and you really become a different kind of person as a result of those experiences,” Person said.

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