An Unforeseen Transformation: A Personal Account of Educational Opportunities

Maria Gear
Innovation Showcase

Researchers define a first-generation student as the first member of a family to attend college (Chen, 2005; Ishitani, 2006; Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017). In the U.S., these students are more likely to be African American or Hispanic (Chen, 2005), come from a lower socioeconomic status (Jenkins, Miyazaki, & Janosik, 2009; Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017), and have a higher rate of attrition at the collegiate level than their counterparts (Chen, 2005; Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Nuñez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). Students who are first-generation as well as low-income are at a higher risk of failure once they matriculate into higher education institutions (Engle & Tinto, 2008).

Barriers attributed to a lack of postsecondary success for these students include job and family responsibilities, perceived weak English and math skills, inadequate study skills (Stebleton & Soria, 2012), financial stress (Gibbons & Borders, 2010; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Wells & Lynch, 2012; White & Perrone-McGovern, 2017), and a lack of cultural capital (Jenkins, Belanger, Londono Connally, Boals, & Durón, 2013; Ogbu, 1992; Pascarella et al., 2004; White & Ali-Khan, 2013). Additionally, low-income and first-generation students have been reported less likely to engage in academic and social experiences that foster success in college. Often, their inability to live on campus and take a full load of classes due to work responsibilities limits their access to faculty and peers (Engle & Tinto, 2008). Despite these circumstances, some first-generation students manage to overcome obstacles and graduate from postsecondary institutions.

Numerous studies have examined first-generation students’ schooling experiences prior to attending college and have determined that, for many, their academic preparation (Engle & Tinto, 2008; Gibbons & Borders, 2010; Warburton, Bugarin, & Nunez, 2001) and a connectedness to family (Borrero, 2011; Bui & Rush, 2016) can positively influence their academic achievements. Próspero, Russell, and Vohra-Gupta (2012) found that first-generation Hispanic students’ academic success was influenced by their intrinsic motivation, strong family relations, and persistence. Bui and Rush (2016) found that as parental expectations increased, so, too, did the odds of their children attending college.

A Personal Case Study

I am a first-generation Hispanic female from a close-knit family who grew up in a small rural community. Although I did not realize a postsecondary education was in my future, my parents always stressed the importance of doing well in school. When I started high school, my father said to me, Toma las clases más dificil.” (“Take the harder classes.”) My mother would say, Te pueden quitar todo, pero no una educación.” (“They may take everything away from you, but not an education.”) This article provides a brief look into prominent factors that played a crucial role in my postsecondary education, particularly the vital contributions of a community college.

During my senior year, the Director of Financial Aid from Southwest Texas Junior College (SWTJC), a young Hispanic man, visited my high school to share information about college financial aid with students. I was impressed, as it was uncommon to see someone who looked like me in such a position, and the idea of attending college suddenly seemed more realistic. Following his advice, I completed a FAFSA and a college admissions application. I indicated I wanted my information to be sent to some of the public state universities and to SWTJC, with no understanding of the costs involved or the admissions process. When I received notice that I had been accepted to SWTJC and had been awarded a scholarship, my family and I were thrilled. I was the first member of my family to graduate from high school, and now I was the first to be accepted to college. I was about to embark on a life-changing experience.

Beginning my studies at SWTJC, I was apprehensive and full of excitement. I had no idea what college life was like, but processes at the college eased me into this transition. First, all freshmen were required to enroll in a course that provided us with basic information, including adding and dropping courses, financial aid, available counseling services, and community organizations. Most of my classes had no more than 20 students, and we quickly got to know each other. As it turned out, many of us remained in the same classes and used each other as resources as we progressed on our academic journeys.

I was also fortunate that my financial aid package covered tuition and the cost of books. I lived at home with my parents and, therefore, did not have independent room and board expenses. I worked at the college library, which served as an added source of income. Recalling my father’s advice to take the harder classes, I enrolled in calculus and physics courses my freshmen year. I did well in these courses with the support of my professors, who were accessible and took time to assist me. My physics professor shared information regarding four-year institution scholarship opportunities with me during my second year. As a result, I applied for and was awarded a scholarship to a flagship state university upon completing my associate’s degree at SWTJC.

Though I was enthusiastic to start my new life, the move was quite an adjustment for me. I was confronted with new and frightening obligations, and when my program began in the fall, I was surprised by a feeling of isolation. Without realizing it, I had come to depend on the sense of community at SWTJC. The junior college, with a higher percentage of minority students, offered student-centered activities, smaller class sizes, supportive faculty and staff, and social events. The university, on the other hand, had a far more students, large class sizes in which I often felt like a number, and fewer opportunities for me to engage with other minority and first-generation students. The small, intimate campus setting of SWTJC made my transition from high school to college easy, but I had to learn to cope at the university without the extra support structures common at community colleges.

I relied on the survival skills I gained from SWTJC, family support, and my own determination, and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in education. I began working as a 9th grade science teacher at a high school in Laredo, Texas, the following semester. After teaching in public education for 10 years, I obtained a Master of Education in school counseling, and a decade later earned a Doctor of Education.

Familism, a cultural value that emphasizes close and supportive family relationships (Campos, Ullman, Aguilera, & Schetter, 2014), has been found to moderate the effects of cultural stressors for Latina/o college students (Corona et al., 2017), as parents play a vital role in their children’s collegiate experiences (Lee, Sax, & Kim, 2004). Unlike research findings that first-generation students are less likely to take college preparatory classes while in high school (Chen, 2005; Rivas-Drake & Mooney, 2008) and are likely to have lower GPAs, I, guided by my parents, enrolled in math and science courses beyond basic graduation requirements.

Studies have examined first generation students’ backgrounds and educational characteristics (Atherton, 2014; Engle & Tinto, 2008; Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017; Stebleton & Soria, 2012), enrollment (Horn & Nunez, 2000; Provasnik & Planty, 2008), and persistence (Adelman, 2006; Ahterton, 2014; Lohfink & Paulson, 2005) as well as the services available to them in community colleges (Wood, 2016). These services can include information on college preparatory curriculum, counseling services on the college search and selection process, information on college admissions and financial aid applications, and family involvement (College Board, n.d.). While I may have lacked the cultural capital that facilitates the transition from high school to postsecondary education, access to these supports at a two-year college proved to be transformative for me.

The supportive community setting at the community college was like that of my own family structure. My family provided me with the emotional sustenance and love I needed to continue my educational endeavors, while the community college served as the entryway to my future educational attainments.

Community Colleges: Gateway to Higher Education

For many students, community colleges represent the beginning of a collegiate experience. These institutions have much to offer prospective low-income, first-generation students and should continue to visit high school campuses, where they can introduce students and their families to the college planning process. When students arrive on a community college campus, access to counseling services to help them select a field of study, exposure to campus tours to ensure familiarity with available on site resources, information about financial aid through financial aid seminars, and assistance in undertaking a successful transfer process are essential to their success.

Today, I am an assistant professor of education at Sul Ross State University. I work with students with demographic characteristics similar to mine. Many of these students are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Some have emigrated from Mexico at an older age than I did, which has made learning English more difficult for them. Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, and Nora (1996) found that first-generation students arrive at college with a weaker educational background in comparison to their peers. Regardless, these students often possess the determination to succeed academically and, for many, the local community college provides accessible educational opportunities.


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Maria Gear is an Assistant Professor of Education at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.