For First-Generation Students, Graduating From College Takes Grit and Grown-Up Support
Dalia Angel, right, expects to graduate from San Jose State next year, with the support of the Peninsula College Fund, a nonprofit that provides scholarship money, summer internships and mentors like Carole Melis. (James Tensuan/KQED)
This time of year, we’re posting selfies with happy college graduates and forwarding inspirational commencement speeches -- and why not? Graduation is a righteous achievement. But it’s a lot harder for some than others. Especially for low-income students who are the first in their families to go to college.
Dalia Angel was always headed up and out of East Menlo Park. "Because I’m young and I’m motivated and I feel like I need to get out of where I was born, at least a step higher," she says.
She's the fourth of seven children. Her dad's a gardener; her mom, a nanny. She wants to be a lawyer.
Many first-generation students like Angel never graduate from college. They get lost for a number of reasons: poverty, poor K-12 schools, parents who can’t really help much. But Angel, who is 21, got into a program called the Peninsula College Fund, which supports kids like her with $12,000 in scholarship money, career workshops, summer internships and mentoring.
Charles Schmuck founded the fund, which is modeled, like the East Bay College Fund, after the Meritus College Fund in San Francisco. Schmuck says his aim is to serve better-than-average students from tough neighborhoods like East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park and Redwood City east of Highway 101.
He figures schools like Harvard, Stanford and the like will seek out underprivileged academic superstars. He wants to support the kids with respectable grades (3.2 to 3.8 GPA) who don't have the family resources to achieve all that they're capable of.
"This group of dedicated students is often overlooked by other scholarship programs," Schmuck says.
The scholarship money functions like bait to attract students like Angel to a wraparound support system. The focus isn’t just on getting her into college. It’s also on getting her out, with a degree.
Hard Work Not Enough on Its Own
"She was really determined, very impressively focused, and also kind of scared," says Carole Melis, a public relations consultant from San Mateo. The fund asked Melis to mentor Angel right after high school graduation -- in large part because Melis was also the first in her family to go to college.
"That was actually one of my motivations," says Melis. "My father worked for the post office. And my mother was a secretary. When I brought home straight A's, my parents would laugh and say, 'Oh, they got the wrong kid at the hospital.' So I didn’t have to worry about living up to crazy expectations. But I did feel when I first went to Oxy [Occidental College in Los Angeles] that I was out of place. I did have some doubts at first. Like, do I really belong here?"
The program had encouraged Angel to apply to Cal State instead of community college. Many kids in her situation underestimate how high they can fly. Sure enough, she got into three Cal State schools and chose San Jose. So far, so good. Then she discovered how unprepared she was.
"I didn’t have any idea on how to manage my time wisely," says Angel. "I didn’t know that I had to study every single night."
Angel blames her high school for not giving her tough enough courses -- a common problem in poor Zip codes across California. She got a 3.7 GPA, while working 21 hours a week as a cashier at Trader Joe’s. She even played on the soccer team. But once at San Jose State, she tested into remedial math and English, to cover ground she had ostensibly covered already.
It Helps To Be Able to Call in the Cavalry
Three weeks into the first semester, a transcript snafu almost derailed her career at San Jose State. The admissions office informed Angel that she had failed to send a transcript from her time at La Cañada Community College. She'd taken a few classes, as many kids in high school do, but she hadn't embarked on a college degree before coming to San Jose State. Schmuck marched down to the admissions office and got them to relent and let Angel back in.
Think back, if you will, to what you were like as a college freshman. Timid? Just a little bit cowed by authority? There are numerous ways parents help in a situation like this because they know when a "no" can be turned into a "yes" -- if they're familiar and comfortable with the system in question.
"I felt very alone," she says. "I couldn’t talk to my family about it because, coming from a first-generation family, none of them had any idea what I was talking about." Her parents didn’t graduate from high school, let alone college.
"You’re dealing with a parent who has no context of what’s going on in college," says Schmuck. For students, muddling through alone, it's hard to shake the feeling they're out of place at the university. "When they get a D or an F, it reinforces that feeling, 'Hey, you don’t belong here.' Whether the kid’s at Harvard or San Jose State, they don’t have the confidence."
Worse Than Getting An F
Angel was getting by with a 2.4 GPA her freshman year. She told everybody, including Melis, that she was doing fine, and she was -- until she gave up on an anthropology class during her sophomore year.
"I was never able to get there on time, and I stopped attending and I got a WU. Unauthorized Withdrawal. That’s worse than getting an F."
At this point, Melis interjects. " ’Course, I didn’t know about this until later."
"Because I thought I’ll just take it again next semester," Angel responds. She was used to functioning on her own without adult support or supervision.
"I didn’t do anything, to be honest," she says. "I didn’t seek help. I thought this was going to be another challenge, and I was going to overcome it quickly."
She got several email alerts warning that her grade-point average had fallen below 2.0. She had one semester to bring it back up or be kicked out of San Jose State.
She finally reached out. "I had to come clean -- quickly -- and I got The Talk."
Now Angel was on probation. She had to switch to a community college for a semester to get her GPA back above 2.0. But more than that, she needed the kind of grown-up guidance many other kids take for granted. Twenty-plus hours a week at Trader Joe’s? Living at home with her folks and six siblings? Angel couldn’t focus on school -- or take advantage of San Jose State’s workshops and tutoring.
San Jose State, like a number of Cal State and UC campuses, offers an Educational Opportunity Program specifically designed for low-income, first-generation students. Angel was leaving critical resources on the table.
Melis says the crisis was a wake-up call for her, too. "What I realized was it was just really important to really ride herd more closely in terms of getting grades, status reports -- being a little bit more parental, as opposed to being a friend," she says.
Angel moved out of her family's home and into a shared house near campus. Her parents weren’t happy about it at the time, but she says, "It’s soooo much better! And my grades have improved dramatically, and I am more involved and I have more friends, and I’m really happy with my life right now."
She is now on track to graduate next year: one step closer to practicing family law, one step closer to beating the odds.
A first-generation Latina has only a 55 percent chance of graduating within six years, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Students backed by the Peninsula College Fund are more than 90 percent likely to graduate.
That said, it’s a tiny, local program that has helped 116 kids over the last decade.
"You know, there are bright spots in different places, but it’s not happening at every single college and university," says Michelle Siqueiros, who heads a statewide nonprofit research and advocacy group, the Campaign for College Opportunity.
The campaign recently issued a report finding three out of four Latinos graduated from high school in California in 2012-13 -- but only three out of 10 completed the requirements to be eligible for a public four-year university. The gist of the argument is in this opening paragraph:
California is home to more than 15 million Latinos, the largest
racial/ethnic group in the state. When one in two children
under the age of 18 in California is Latino, one conclusion
is clear: the future of our economy and the state will rise
or fall on the educational success of Latinos. To secure
the economic future of California we need to significantly
increase the number of Latino students who are prepared for,
enroll in and graduate from college.
Siqueiros says that, regardless of ethnicity, there are tens of thousands of low-income, first-generation students in California who need intensive support to survive college. "The challenge is making sure that more students get access to that kind of support. That’s the challenge, is really scaling the things that we know that work."
Even at the local level, each individual success story has a multiplier effect, according to Melis at the Peninsula College Fund.
"They’re not the kinds of kids that are going to college so they can become investment bankers," she says. "They’re entering social work. They’re entering education. If they do law, it’s usually for some social good."
Each of these kids, she says, will ultimately give back to the families and the communities they came from.