College process has its ups and downs for first-generation students

For the past several weeks, members of the class of 2016 have anxiously opened emails with subject lines such as “Your Admissions Decision” or “Decision Now Available.” Juniors, on the other hand, are just beginning this process. Spring at Urban feels a little like the circle of life, if life was just the college process and the sophomores and freshmen did not exist.

  Urban is an extremely good place to start the journey towards college. According to a brochure from 2011-2015, “98% of Urban students will attend a four-year college or university.” The Urban college process begins with a meeting between the student, the student’s college counselor, and the student’s parents or guardians. But what happens when those parents or guardians are in entirely new territory? It’s true that the admissions process has changed radically since the years most parents were attending school, but some parents have never attended a four-year college or even graduated high school.

  “Both of my parents are from Honduras,” said Enyolli Martinez (‘17). “They came to the United States when they were 19, so they couldn’t go to college. My dad left school in fourth grade.” Martinez went on to tell the story of how her parents travelled to the United States by foot. Now they are doing everything they can to see that Martinez has a different life.

  “They have really high expectations for me,” said Martinez. “Especially because I was born here in the United States… My dad always said that he wanted to be a surgeon… He always tells me stories about how he wishes he could have done what I’m doing now.”

  Martinez will be a first generation-college student. According to the College Board, nearly a third of Americans between 5-17 will also be first-generation students. It’s not an easy position to be in. Ehryn Ortega-Thurman (‘16), another first-generation student, expressed that “this is all a new experience (for her parents).” She continued, “They’re learning as they go how to support me.”

  Other difficulties surrounding being a first-generation student are more specific. In the case of Andy Zhang (‘17), who immigrated with his family from China when he was seven, much of the confusion his parents face is cultural. Of his parents’ views on Urban’s college counseling system, Zhang said, “They think our counselors are good but they don’t know much about American college.”

  Similarly, Martinez cited a lack of connections as a roadblock for her and her family in the college process. “I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to go to the East Coast to visit college because, you know, I know someone who goes there,” she said with sarcasm. “I don’t know what schools to look at because my parents to don’t know anything (about the college process).”

  According to the students, operating in a privileged environment like Urban can present some annoyances, such as “when people are like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this school, or that school,” said Martinez. “Or, ‘My parents have a B.A. in this or that.’ They make it seem like a competition.”

  However, all three students said that being a first- generation student can be an advantage as well.

  “It motivates me even more because I’m not rich at all,” said Martinez. “Other people just rely on what they have and that’s something that I’ve always known I never could do.” Martinez said she’s “been preparing for this since fourth grade” through programs like Breakthrough, Smart, and Summerbridge.

  The students aren’t the only ones preparing. Urban’s college counseling office is also upping its programs for first-generation students and their parents.

  “It’s something that we think a lot about,” said Susan Lee, Head of College Counseling. “We have tried to have more programs where parents can get more information. For example we have programs for Bridge parents. We have started having morning coffees where people can come and ask questions. We do a college trip for high-need financial aid students (not necessarily first-generation). We try to reach out to parents who might need to know a little more about the college process.”

  Ortega-Thurman, who claimed that her college counselor Lauren Gersick was “very accommodating” and always “willing to sit down with (her) mom and talk about the … process and financial aid packages,” has seen acceptances roll her way. “It’s exciting,” Ortega-Thurman said. “It’s kind of affirming.”