1,332. This is the number of college essays I have read to date this season. I’m getting to the point where I need to blink every few minutes to prevent my eyes from drying out. Amidst the daunting process that is reading season, I find myself stopping every couple of hours, taking a deep breath, and refocusing on what it is I am looking for in each application. I remind myself that the application I am about to read is like no other I’ve read to date. It’s easy to lump all stories together and lose sight of the one key difference between applications: context such as how and where the student grew up, her cultural background, and if she is the first in her family to attend college. All of these details significantly impacts her understanding of a college education and the story she will tell.

As a first generation college student myself, I remember the college search and application process like it was yesterday. I knew I had to go to college. That was never a question. Why you ask? To get a good job, to give back to my family, to live in a house that I owned, and to drive a car that didn’t break down. Just imagine my shock when I went to orientation and the student leader talked about fun campus activities, exploring who you are, and taking dance classes just because. I loved dance! Could I really do that and still get that awesome job I’d been told about my whole life?

A colleague forwarded me an article published in The Atlantic a few weeks ago that resonated with my own experiences as a first-generation, Latina student. The article titled “The Danger of Telling Poor Kids that College is the Key to Social Mobility,” written by Andrew Simmons brings up good points about how educators “sell” college to minority students from low income communities. If you have a couple minutes, check it out: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/the-danger-of-telling-poor-kids-that-college-is-the-key-to-social-mobility/283120/. In a nutshell, Simmons claims that many counselors and school administrators are focusing more on telling this population of students that they must go to college to get a good job. By doing so, they are missing an opportunity to talk about the in-between experience, the four years before they get the good job. Simmons also states that students with more privileged backgrounds are not receiving the same message. They have grown up with the idea of college as a time for growth, development, and the pursuit of intellectual curiosity. In the article, Simmons refers to this as a “hidden curriculum” that is essentially setting students up for their future roles. As counselors and administrators, we may not even realize we’re doing this; it’s something we’ve learned and accepted as the “best way” to advise first-generation, low income, and minority students.

Simmons reminds us of a good point: many first-generation, low income students have not been afforded the luxury of only concerning themselves with what they enjoy and want to learn. These students often grown up in households where financial problems are daily dinner conversations and their parents, who are overworked and tired when they arrive home late at night, remind  them that they must go to college to have a better life. Many of these same students also have large responsibilities at home that limit learning time from 8:00am-3:00pm, when they are in school. Simmons proposes that college “be ‘sold’ to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening,” and I agree with him. However, I also believe that we must remain sensitive to the unique experiences of first-generation, low income, and minority students and the additional responsibilities that may sometimes detract from contemplating how they will grow or what they will learn during their four years in college.

So, as educators, how do we find a balance between teaching all students, regardless of background, that college is a time of personal growth and development and a time to learn for the sake of learning, and the reality of seeing the need to attend college for the purpose of financial security?

By Diana Moreno