My name is Krystle Lyric Arnold and I am a first-generation college student.
To nearly 70 percent of the college population nationwide, those words mean little, but to those of us who are the first in our immediate families to pursue a college degree, the description carries weight, and for good reason.
Nearly 90 percent of first-gen students fail to obtain their college degrees. The majority of first-gen students are also low-income and the U.S. Department of Education says only 9 percent of students from the lowest income brackets graduate with a four-year degree, whether or not they are first-gen.
While everyone has their own background, many first-gen students share experiences similar to mine. Many of us grew up in poverty and several hours drive from the nearest college campus. Our families are often unable to help us financially in pursuit of a college education, or they don’t value such an education. So instead, we enter the workforce and we battle our socioeconomic status—quite often for a number of years—before we are able to consider a college education.
Mary Jo Gonzales ’95 MA, ’01 PhD was a perfect example of a first-gen student at risk of failing to graduate.
Gonzales, the youngest of ten children, says she never expected to go to college—in part because she hit a trifecta of challenges. Gonzales was a low-income, minority, and first-gen student. She was also a single mother and a transfer student. Statistically, she had very little chance of obtaining a degree.
Fifteen years after receiving a doctorate and working for various universities throughout the United States, Gonzales has returned to WSU as the vice president of Student Affairs, which includes programs for first-gen students.
After high school, Gonzales intended to work rather than pursue college, but a favorite high school teacher decided she had greater potential. He encouraged Gonzales to apply to college and even helped her fill out the application that was due only a few days later. With the teacher’s encouragement, Gonzales realized she had a chance to pursue a higher education, not to mention even higher degrees. Before applying for graduate school at WSU, Gonzales says she had no idea what grad school was.
“It only takes one caring adult,” Gonzales says, for a student to realize their potential and to pursue it. With this in mind, Gonzales has dedicated her career to helping students like herself achieve academic and professional success. “I have to make a difference,” she says. “I have to give back.”
The Department of Education reports that first-gen students more often enter college several years after other students. In many cases, this means the students are married or, like Gonzales, parents. These students are often closer in age and experience to their younger professors rather than their classmates. Transfer students often run into similar problems.
For example, Gonzales demonstrates the complications of being both a single mother and a graduate student. To balance her WSU coursework with being a mother, Gonzales would read textbooks to her daughter at bedtime. To make it fun, Gonzales would read each chapter in a sing-song voice.
Twenty years ago WSU did not systematically gather data on first-gen students, says Lucila Loera ’98 MED, WSU’s assistant vice president of Student Affairs. Since then, the University has made it a point to work with first-gen and other underrepresented students providing scholarship money, daycare, food pantries, and other services. It’s an important effort; WSU first-gen students comprise over 30 percent of students, and a similar percentage are minority students. Additionally, more than 40 percent of WSU’s transfer students are first-gen.
I met senior finance major Eliana Rodriguez rummaging through a plastic set of drawers in the food pantry run by the Student Affairs office. Like Gonzales, Rodriguez is a first-gen, transfer minority student. Rodriguez agrees that this can present more challenges.
There are numerous resources available to students but they can be hard to find, Rodriguez says. Finding programs that fit a student’s needs, or that the student fits into, “is half the battle. There’s no one who’s going to hold your hand.”
Eva Navarijo ’04, director of the First Scholars Program at WSU, says first-gen students often have trouble because, in many cases, they were not raised in a college-going culture.
Within some families, she explains, the idea of obtaining a college degree is established, and sometimes even expected, as early as grade school. The student works toward this goal throughout their K–12 education. Additionally, as incoming college students, family mentors can advise and encourage the students.
There are several “hidden tips and tricks” that first-gen, transfer, and minority students may not receive, Navarijo says, such as what classes to take in high school to better ensure acceptance to a university, how to first apply for financial aid once they’ve been accepted, or how to successfully transfer from a community college to a university. They may not know what programs are available to help, or how to find them.
For example, Navarijo tells the story of a first-gen student who failed her first semester at WSU. First-gen students often do poorly their first semester, but her parents felt that she must not be cut out for college. Despite programs designed to help students like this young woman, her parents packed her things and drove her home.
Gonzales says that although the number of first-gen students is increasing, universities often fail to acknowledge the differing experiences of each student and their needs.
She also believes these students are less likely to succeed because universities don’t teach them the professional skills they will need after graduation, such as negotiating salaries, money management, and loan repayment options.
According to the Department of Education, “Low-income students, first-generation college students, and minority students, in particular, are being underserved by the current system.”
“As universities we haven’t done our job,” Gonzales says.
But that’s changing. Gonzales, Loera, and others hope to improve support for WSU’s first-gen students. Loera would like to see a concerted effort to consolidate information and resources for all these students.
We have to let the students know that they are not alone, Gonzales says.
My name is Krystle Lyric Arnold and on May 6, 2017, I, along with Rodriguez and others, will have beaten the odds—we will be among the 10 percent of first-gen students who have succeeded. We will be university graduates.