“My parents didn’t go to college. I didn’t know a single thing about the college application process or when I started my first year. Why has it been so difficult for me?”
My parents dropped out of middle school, so high school was my higher education. I was unfamiliar with the college application process but I had several competitive friends who pushed me to become more ambitious. When I started my first year at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), I felt lost and disconnected from the campus. In the summer education course, several colleagues I met mentioned UCLA was their safety school as their parent(s) prepared them to ensure they had a high chance to get accepted to the prestigious university. At that moment, I recognized my disadvantages and where I was positioned in academia. I was and still am a first-generation college student.
Twenty percent of all college students are first-generation (Choy, 2011). A first-generation college student is defined as the first in the family to attend college, with neither parent having any prior college education. Callanta & Ortiz (2009) define first-generation college students as an invisible minority, a hidden population less likely to be academically or socially supported by their institutions. According to Choy (2001), 47% of entering college students in 1995 to 1996 were first-generation with neither parent having more than a high school education. They are more likely to be non-traditional students or 24 years and older (Choy, 2001). These first-generation college students are viewed as a disadvantaged group, as higher education institutions are less likely to ensure their retention and graduation (Choy, 2001).
After the end of my first year, I wanted to drop out based on my low academic performance, limited social life, and the intense pressure to excel from others. Many of my Latino colleagues felt imposter syndrome as the political tension rose questions about their acceptance based on race and class. Tinto’s (1993) Individual Roots of Student Departure theory can help us better understand how college students feel alienated from their college campus through academic difficulties, the inability to resolve educational and occupational goals, and the failure to become or remain incorporated in academic and social spaces on campus. I went home every weekend to feel re-energized by the support and strength of my family. Rendon et al. (2000) revise Tinto’s theory to acknowledge how Latinos connect with their families as a strategy of social integration to better adjust to their campus.
I struggled to navigate through my highly-selective university as a Latino first-generation college student. I was not familiar with the higher education component and I truly was not prepared for the hardships I experienced. UCLA posed such a rigorous environment with limited support such as the lack of faculty of color, political tension in student affairs, and limited mentoring programs. Unfortunately, several colleagues withdrew and decided to not return due to financial, familial, and academic struggles. Overall, it is crucial for higher education institutions to reach out and support Latino first-generation college students because they are more likely to leave college if they feel disconnected, unwelcome, or do not maneuver through campus life well. I went to find a mentor and sought out resources from other spaces to maneuver much better. My family was my source of motivation and increased my persistence to graduate. Thus, I am now in my last year in my Master’s program at the University of Texas at Austin. As a student affairs practitioner, I continue to support these first-generation college students to persist and graduate from their higher education institutions.