Higher Education and Beyond

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August 21, 2016 by poverty2professional

Being the first in your family to attend college is a difficult path to forge. Even after you’ve been accepted, there is no precedent for what you’re about to do. No immediate Jedi-esque mentor to coach you on if you’re doing the right thing or even to have a general knowledge of the calendar of deadlines (e.g. if you want to go to college next year, then you’d better apply in fall this year). Sometimes, the most that parents who did not attend or finish college can offer is encouragement. They might not understand why it would be better for you to live on campus as opposed to commuting (short answer: You’re more likely to get involved and complete college). Yet, as vulnerable as you are, being the first in your family to go to college is a bold, pioneering venture toward a brighter future.

Now let’s try going from being the first in your family and homeless. In addition to not having the normalizing process of going to college after high school, you’re extremely limited on the financial and social resources that would ease the transition .

It is extraordinarily easy to slip through the cracks.

This phenomenon is academically termed “summer melt.” Coined in the seminal book, Summer Melt, by Stanford sociologist Dr. Ben Castleman (2014), the issue affects primarily students who are low-income and are the first in the families to attend college (usually termed “first generation”). Here’s a scary stat, up to 40% of low-income/first-generation college enrollees will not matriculate to their first day of classes. Why? A trifecta of reasons, among them the complexity of financial documentation, lack of transparency of the college’s follow-up process, and the crushing sense that the student “does not belong” at the campus.

Between the time that my family received housing and when I would register for classes, I received an email from UCLA’s financial aid office requesting additional documentation. Having a college that you’ve committed to (i.e. you sent then official notice that you’re going to attend) request more financial information on you and your family is common. This was a request that FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) warns you about when you fill it out online, especially if your family isn’t expected to pay anything toward your college (a typical initial assessment for low-income students). UCLA’s form was all of four pages, but it still asked for a detailed breakdown of my family’s income, including both documentation of government assistance (food stamps, general relief, etc.) and the amounts accounted toward housing, food, clothing, transportation, leisure, and so on. Of course, just as many questions came into my own mind: When do I have to turn it in by? To whom? Where? How will I know that it’s been processed?

The form was not mailed to me and had to be accessed through the university’s online student web portal. Many students often forget to check their online college accounts. Also typically, once registered at a college, most communication is shifted away from direct emails to the student and instead sent only to the student portal on the college’s website. This means, unless a newly admitted student is regularly checking their portal – which, after the stresses of applying to college, being accepted, and finishing financial aid applications, can be forgotten as an unnecessary extension of this stress – then they are highly likely to miss important campus deadlines (housing, financial documentation, orientation), requests for information, and even financial aid award notices.

Now, students who are not the first in their families to attend college usually benefit from the know-how of a parent who is generally familiar with the cycle. Additionally, students who have parents who have attended college usually have a higher family income and therefore are more able to afford resources that keep them tracked in the college culture. These factors combined mean that students who are better off are more likely to matriculate to the fall semester of college.

To paraphrase Dr. Castleman, it’s not that affluent students are smarter or any more mature than their lower-income peers – it’s just that they’ve had more help and resources.

Finally, there’s the lack of belonging that some students may feel. This is not uncommon among first-generation students. Without a parent to give validation that college-going culture is “normal,” the student may experience a sense of imposter syndrome. This is more prevalent on campuses (i.e. elite and prestigious colleges) where most students are not the first in their families to attend. One of the comments that still sticks in my mind was from my sophomore year of college. I was the third roommate of two freshmen, one of whom had both parents attend UCLA. When I offered to show my roommates around and that I was available for advice, she casually (and maybe just a little primly) remarked, “Well, both my parents went here, so I’m sure I know my way around just fine.”

It was a blunt reminder that even after a whole year of college, I could still be a newbie to someone who grew up with the expectation and environment of attending college and completing a degree. My grandfather and his brothers were janitors at the theatres in Westwood. They certainly never dreamed their granddaughter/niece would attend the university up the block from there.

Here’s what had made the difference: I attended UCLA’s summer bridge program, the Freshmen Summer Program (FSP). A summer bridge program is a set of courses (usually about two) that offer full college credit to incoming students so they have a chance to get their feet wet and adjust to the campus. The students usually live on campus and have full services of tutoring and counseling at their disposal. They are also kept in very close contact with other students sharing the same experience. These programs are usually targeted toward students who could benefit most from the support (i.e. first-generation!), are low-income, and/or are students from underrepresented minorities.

It was in my summer bridge program that I met my best friend and forged many other friendships that would stick with me throughout college. Because of them, I knew that I was not alone among the first-timers at college. I fit right in. Better yet, I got a head start in the summer, so I knew where all the main resources were and that there were counselors I could always run to for advice.

My father and I had survived homelessness. As much of a beating in mental and physical exhaustion that that was, I learned from my dad, as well as my experiences, the core values of persistence, resourcefulness, and resiliency. If anything, I was more than ready for college.  Clearly, no matter what the challenge, higher education was the natural next step.

Thank you for reading! Poverty to Professional will be going on hiatus until Monday, October 10th, when we’ll be back with information on navigating college and exactly how a first-generation, low-income student is supposed to make her way to a bachelor’s degree in the wake of our nation’s highest student loan debt crisis. Until then, please share this blog with anyone you know who may wish to learn more about first-hand accounts with homelessness. Thank you!


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