A few years ago, school counselor Kimberly Brown worked with a student who was offered a college athletic scholarship. "He had a tremendous opportunity in front of him that could change the trajectory of his life," she said. But the student was thinking of turning it down. When Brown spoke with the student's father, who hadn’t finished high school, he said he had friends who went to college and were doing worse than him. "He could not fathom why it was so important for [his son] to do this," she said.
Speaking at the American School Counselors Association national conference in July, Brown said that it’s not her place to make decisions for a student, but she did try to "flood him with information." She talked him through scenarios, such as:
- If you go to this school, this might be the life you might have…
- If you finish with this degree, this would be the starting salary…
- If you stay here, what will you do?
After considering the example he wanted to set for his younger siblings, the student accepted the scholarship. But it wasn’t the first or last time Brown has helped students navigate family discouragement around college. And those aren’t the only hurdles for first-generation college students. Brown said educators can support these students by making it clear that higher education is an option, demystifying the admissions process and checking in with them between acceptance and departure.
Make college an option
Brown, a first-generation college graduate herself, works at Greenville County Schools in South Carolina. There, she organizes small groups for potential first-generation college-goers to plan their futures. In at least one meeting each year, she opens the floor for students to share the negative messages they’ve heard about college. With several manufacturing plants in the vicinity, a lot of students have been told they don’t need college. They also hear stories about relatives or friends who went for a semester or two and didn’t finish.
“We focus a lot on grades and test scores and the concrete stuff about college admissions. But students have to have a safe space to say out loud, ‘This is what I’m hearing. This is how it’s affecting me,’” Brown said. She said that educators should have compassion and not make assumptions about families, but also recognize how easily the discouraging narratives can outweigh a “Yes, you can” message about college. After listening, her strategy of flooding them with information begins. “They have to have ammunition to fight those things that they've been hearing for years.”