A Generation of Possibilities
By Jayna Phinney
Communications and Marketing
Like many students who are the first in their families to attend college, Teresa Rivera entered Angelo State University not knowing what would be expected of her in the classroom.
Her family lives in San Angelo and still expects Rivera to meet family obligations as she always has. However, because no family member before her had gone to college, they did not know what is required of her as a student.
“I struggled my first semester because I didn’t know what I was doing,” Rivera said.
At least 45 percent of undergraduate ASU students are considered first-generation college students, which the university defines as those who will be the first in their families to complete either a two-year or four-year college degree.
“Seeing other students going through what I’m going through helped a lot.”
The numbers are even higher among Hispanic students like Rivera. During the 2011 fall semester, 59.26 percent of ASU’s Hispanic undergraduate population reported they were first-generation students.
To meet the needs of first-generation students, the ASU Multicultural Center offers three programs to help acclimate them to college life. While the programs are open to all first-generation students, the majority of participants are Hispanic. Multicultural Center staff members are aware that for Hispanic students, being the first in the family to attend college not only creates academic uncertainty, but also presents cultural challenges for families.
Rivera is familiar with two of the first-generation programs. While in high school, she participated in ASUFirst, a one-day event to help students meet members of the campus community and get involved. She was also able to meet other students experiencing the same first-generation issues.
“Seeing other students going through what I’m going through helped a lot,” Rivera said.
Another program, First Generation Raising and Meeting Standards (RAMS) peer mentoring, pairs first-generation freshmen with upperclassmen first-generation students to help the younger students navigate through their first year of college. It also connects new students with ASU faculty and staff, and offers scholarships to active members. Rivera said connecting with other students and faculty helped give her the support and encouragement to continue with her studies.
The Multicultural Center also offers the First Generation Host Family Program that matches students with local families, who help ease the students’ transition to college life. While students do not live with them, the families serve as a community connection.
“We want students to grow roots in San Angelo,” said Flor Madero, the Multicultural Center’s associate director for diversity initiatives.
Joe Muñoz, assistant to the president for multicultural initiatives, said first-generation students, especially those who are Hispanic, often have a harder time adjusting to college because they have to balance the needs of their families with their academic schedule.
“Parents do not understand what a student needs for success,” Muñoz said.
Beyond retaining first-generation students, ASU also faces challenges recruiting them because they often lack the confidence to approach a college recruiter to ask questions, Muñoz said. The Multicultural Center provides assistance by helping at recruiting events and providing staff who can speak to families in Spanish.
“We take students with us to recruiting events,” Madero said. “A lot of times, students will rally around a family and explain things to families who have questions.”
The financial component of a college education is huge for the families of first-generation students, Muñoz said, with many asking recruiters how they will pay for school. Other issues that concern Hispanic families in particular are campus safety and the distance of the campus from home. A lot of times, parents have a hard time letting go.
Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist John Quiñones knows first-hand just how difficult it can be for parents to let go of their first-generation college students. He spoke about his experiences during an ASU campus visit last fall.
“College students need to try and think about where their parents are coming from and remember for themselves how lucky they are,” Quiñones said.
Quiñones, who grew up in San Antonio, was successful in college after getting involved in high school with a government-funded program called Upward Bound. Similar to some of the ASU Multicultural Center’s first-generation programs, Upward Bound introduced Quiñones to a college campus and to the expectations of university academics, and it helped his parents warm to the idea of him going to college. As a result, he graduated from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio with a degree in speech communication.
Unfortunately, his sisters were unable to go to college, which Quiñones attributes largely to it being uncommon in his culture for girls to leave home on their own after high school.
“Luckily,” Quiñones said, “I think times have changed and it’s no longer like that for Hispanic girls today.”
Parents can be short-sighted, Quiñones said, by thinking that it is better for their children to enter the workforce and start making money as soon as they finish high school, or by thinking that it would be too difficult for their child to move away from home.
Madero echoed Quiñones’ sentiments about the closeness of Hispanic families, and offers her own experience as an example. Her family moved to San Angelo when her brother chose ASU for college. When it was time for Madero and her sisters to attend college, her parents were already familiar with the university, so they felt comfortable encouraging their daughters to attend ASU.
Part of the strength of the Multicultural Center’s first-generation programs lies in staff members like Madero whose personal experiences help them serve as role models for students. They can provide the support and guidance that students need to stay in school.
In addition to student success stories, ASU has compelling statistics to prove the university’s efforts are making a difference. The Multicultural Center tracks retention rates, grade point average and semester credit hours of the students in its first-generation programs. Those figures are consistently higher than the figures for first-generation students not in the programs.
But, those student success stories are always a nice bonus, too.
Rivera, who just finished her second year at ASU, is now a mentor to two first-generation students as part of the RAMS program. The connections that she made through the Multicultural Center also helped her feel included in the campus community and become a well-rounded student. She is now a RAMbassador for the Admissions Office and is involved with the Association of Mexican American Students (AMAS).
“I’m not sure what I want to do after college,” said Rivera, who is majoring in biology. “I also like numbers, so I’m trying out an accounting class.”
No matter which major she chooses, one thing is certain: Rivera will have more career options than any family member who has come before her.