I was seventeen years old when I first stepped onto a college campus. This was a very special day because my oldest sister, the first-born daughter in the U.S., was graduating from UCLA. It was a glorious and celebratory day for our entire family since it represented a collective family effort. As a family, we knew we had transcended unimaginable borders. On this day, my parents were graduating from college too. You see, my father, a humble and hardworking man was only formally educated up to the third grade. My mom on the other hand managed to graduate from high school in Mexico and eventually earned her GED just a few years ago. Like many U.S.-born children of immigrants, a college education has the power to create a legacy, opening the door to higher education for further generations. Thanks to our oldest sister setting an example for us, my sister and I were able to follow her footsteps towards a post-secondary education.
As a college admission counselor, I am frequently reminded of this great responsibility of working with first-generation students like myself. The broad definition of a first-generation college student is one who is first in their family to attend a university. Although as a nation we are working towards closing the achievement gap and doing a better job at sending students off four-year institutions, it is important to recognize that we still have a lot of work to do to help first-generation students navigate the college application process and even more importantly, ensuring that they actually attend their first day of classes. There are still a number of issues regarding the retention and access of first-generation students within higher education, but for purposes of this blog entry, I want to acknowledge that a certain level of extra Tender Love and Care (T.L.C) is highly needed as we interact with first-generation students in the kind of work we do as admission counselors.
The college application process is particularly daunting for any first-generation student who is paving his or her own college path with no example to follow. With overpopulated schools and limited access to college counselors in public high schools throughout the country, it often leaves first-generation students and their parents alone in this journey. One of my favorite things about working in this role as an admission counselor is being able to make meaningful interactions with students and their families. In most circumstances, you welcome the student and their entire family: brother, sister, grandmother, aunt, cousin, etc. and you are exposing them to educational and life opportunities that a higher education provides. This is the beauty of the work we do. Personally, I’ve had several instances where parents have been motivated to go back to school along with their students. It is the most gratifying feeling to know that you have possibly impacted the future and the reality of that family.
Similarly, when I do schools visits in predominantly lower income neighborhoods, I understand well that I am not solely representing my institution, but rather promoting higher education as a whole. During my visits to these high schools, I like to leave students with the resounding message that college is a possibility regardless of their zip code or their parents’ education levels. I believe that our role in higher education is one that is new and is changing— it’s an exciting time to be a college admission counselor since higher education is evolving and becoming more accessible to students across various socioeconomic classes.
By Rosario Torres