First-generation college students balance challenges and rewards
By Leslie Linthicum
Deyanira Nuñez walked with her class in cap and gown this spring, the proud holder of a UNM diploma. The view from the finish line is sweet, but the Albuquerque native says there were challenges on her path to a diploma.
"There were moments in my undergraduate career when I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?'"
While many freshmen arrive at college following in a family tradition, Nuñez was stepping into the unknown. Her father, Alfonso, a maintenance man, had left school in Mexico after the second grade. Her mother, Herlinda, had gone through sixth grade. While her parents encouraged her to further her education so she could get a good-paying job, the native Spanish speaker navigated college admissions and scholarship applications on her own. She decided to live on campus in order to fully immerse in college life. But once on campus she felt guilty for leaving her parents, who relied on her to translate for them.
"They thought I was moving out because I didn't want to be with them or I didn't want to help them out anymore," Nuñez says, "when in reality my goal was to be closer to the university and know how to navigate it. I think I was searching for my identity and independence as well."
She found support and a peer group in campus programs that assist students who are the first in their families to go to college and that helped her to find a passion for student services, a field she hopes to pursue as a master's degree and a career.
"I think as a first-generation student there's always a thought process—do I belong here?" Nuñez says.
"But without any of those roadblocks I wouldn't have grown into the person I am today."
A Foreign Language
At UNM's main campus, about four in every 10 freshmen are "first-generation" students. While the definition of first-generation varies—a student with neither parent having any education beyond high school or a student with neither parent having received a four-year degree—the challenges are similar.
"It's knowledge of the process," says Terry Babbitt, vice president for academic affairs. "Just how to navigate what can be a confusing system."
UNM has been asking a general question about a parent's college degree on its application for years, but two years ago it adopted a more specific question that asks about no college, some college or a college degree.
If you were raised by parents who attended college, you have a built-in resource to ask how to pick a major, map out a class schedule, even to navigate the linen section of the big box store for all those freshman dorm room necessities. If you're the first in your family to head off to college, it can be a maze of confusion: What's a FAFSA? Do I need to buy all these books new? If my professor isn't taking attendance, do I really need to come to class? And just what does a bursar do?
While being the first in a family to attend college isn't necessarily a barrier to success, it is often accompanied by other challenges to success: being low-income or an English language learner.
"For places like UNM that are really diverse, it's really important for us to identify factors that influence the achievement gap. First-generation is obviously one of those," Babbitt says.
"We really add it to help our evaluation of achievement gaps and interventions."
Students may be referred to tutors or mentors through a variety of campus programs. And the data is used to track graduation rates. While about 49 percent of students on main campus graduate in six years, only about 40 percent of first-generation students do.
Admitting first-generation students and getting them to the finish line is a core mission, Babbitt says.
"One of our biggest goals should be to reach out to those students and make them be successful. That should be one of the things we should take the biggest pride in," Babbitt says.
One of the programs designed to improve those graduation numbers is the College Enrichment Program, which offers academic guidance, tutoring and mentorship and even mock final exams to students who are first-generation, low-income or from rural communities—or all three.
Jose Villar, the senior student program advisor, offers a unique perspective when he encounters baffled first-year first-generation students.
"In my household," Villar says, "college was never talked about. It was never discouraged or encouraged."
He came to UNM from Grants High School knowing almost nothing about college life, took some of the wrong classes that didn't count toward his major and missed out on a Pell Grant. And in social settings, he hid the fact that neither of his parents had attended college.
"As a freshman, any time I was asked that question, I lied," Villar says. "I was embarrassed."
Villar ('05 BBA, '12 MBA) is trying to change the identity of first-gen from a disability to a strength.
"I toe a weird line," he says. "I encourage students to embrace these opportunities for assistance and support, but then I look back at 18-year-old Jose who was embarrassed to admit his parents never went to college. I think we need to look at it in a prideful way rather than, 'You're at risk.'"
Finding Your Way, Changing Your Life
When Olivia Carpenter got off the plane at the Albuquerque International Sunport, she was a scared 18-year-old who was navigating the higher education system on her own. Her mother, with a two-year nursing degree, had the most formal education in her extended family.
Carpenter, who went to high school online in her native Los Angeles, came to UNM's attention when she qualified as a National Achievement finalist.
"I got a letter in the mail that said if I applied and was accepted by a certain date I would get a four-year scholarship that covered tuition, fees and room and board," Carpenter says. "So I learned how to spell Albuquerque and moved here. I came here sight unseen."
She arrived as a chemical engineering major, got a job in a neuroscience lab and took classes in the Honors College for fun. Struggling with science and not enjoying it, her semester GPA dropped below the 3.3 required to hold onto her scholarship and she found herself in danger of going home. Meanwhile, she loved her literature classes in Honors, especially those taught by Renee Faubion.
But Carpenter, like a lot of first-generation college students, worried that switching to a literature major might undermine one of her goals for attending college—financial security.
"It was a real resistance in me to trust that what felt right was right," she says. "I was afraid to make the wrong decision and be graduating in four years with a degree I could never use. And I didn't want to disappoint my family. I didn't want to have to ask them to support me."
Carpenter won her appeal to keep her scholarship, switched her major to English and blossomed.
"The whole thing changed. College became bliss for me after that," she says. "I met these amazing people who were working on these amazing questions. I took wonderful classes from wonderful people who became my mentors and my friends.
I never got under a 4.0 after that."
Ready to graduate this spring, she got a voice mail on her cell phone. It was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., telling her she had been accepted to Harvard University's Ph.D. program in English literature. She will move to Cambridge this fall, fully funded for five years.
Looking back, Carpenter sees her college experience, if not her degree, as life-changing.
"For me it was a very important kind of growth that I don't think other people in my family have had the chance to have access to," the 22-year-old says. "I feel like it was a time and a place where I was really encouraged to follow my dreams. I felt like I was encouraged here to acknowledge that I was good at something and then pursue that something. If I would have told that 18-year-old-girl who got off the plane, 'You're going to apply to Harvard and you're going get in and you're going to go,' she would have laughed in my face."
While some students see college as a place to stretch and grow, first-generation students are often looking for a credential to ensure a place in the middle class or higher.
Ryan Warrick, who graduated this spring with a B.A., initially majored in engineering and, when he found he didn't like it, did his research before choosing a new major.
"I looked at unemployment rates and starting salaries and something I might find interesting," says Warrick, a native of San Diego and the son of a retired Border Patrol officer and an administrative assistant.
Warrick found starting salaries in the $45,000-$60,000 range in jobs tied to a degree in economics and he had his new major.
"I wanted something practical," he says. "There's no family business to fall back on or old money to fall back on. It's, 'Gotta get out there and gotta start working.'"
He was able to land a paid internship at NASA's Johnson Space Center, which led to two more paid internships there. And upon graduating he was offered a job at JSC as a resource analyst.
He got through college with support from his parents and leaves with some debt, but he is also leaving with a credential that only about one in three working-age Americans can claim.
"Social mobility is really hard in this country," Warrick says. "As a college student, it feels like everyone around you is getting a college degree, but in reality not that many people go to college."
"We Kind of Winged It"
Ayse Muñiz and her boyfriend Zackary Dodson graduated in the Top 10 at Alamogordo High School, taking AP classes and working as the Sonic Drive-In to save money. No one in their families had gotten past high school. But they didn't see high school as end; they saw it as a beginning.
"I knew that I wasn't done with school," says Dodson, "I liked going to school and gaining knowledge."
Muñiz envisioned herself as an archaeologist or a doctor or a lawyer and knew that college was required for those careers.
No one in their family could guide them through the prep tests or admission process or financial aid, so they did it themselves. In her junior year, Muñiz qualified for the National Hispanic Scholarship, which covered all four years of college. Dodson received the UNM Scholars scholarship among others and Pell Grants.
"That took off a lot of stress," Muñiz says. "We didn't really have a plan otherwise."
"We kind of winged it," says Dodson.
"We were naïve, I would say," says Muñiz.
Four years later, they are married and graduated together, debt-free. Muñiz has a degree in biochemistry; Dodson's is in nuclear engineering. They are off to the University of Michigan, where each has a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D.
Their parents — a utility lineman, a hairdresser, a cashier and an auto mechanic—are proud of their achievement, even if they are a little confused by the need to spend even more years in school.
And while they've changed and grown during college and are now the most educated in their families, neither Muñiz nor Dodson believes their choice makes them special.
"As the first person to go (to college) I think they might think that we have assumptions that we're 'better' than them or something," says Muñiz. "And that's never been how we feel. We chose something different and different is not better or worse, it's just different."
Michelle Abeyta, 32, and Chad Abeyta, 27, were another husband and wife team in cap and gown this spring. She received B.A.s in Native American studies and communications and he received a B.A. in psychology.
Coming from the Navajo reservation—she is from To'hajiilee and he is from Alamo—where higher education is even rarer than in non-Native communities, the couple faced barriers on campus and off.
"Especially when you come from a bilingual family and you hear 'the admissions office, the registrar's office, advisors, academic advisors, financial aid' and all the acronyms, it's overwhelming," she says.
But both started at Central New Mexico College to ease into a four-year degree. Chad got his architectural drafting license after high school, served four years in the Air Force and, encouraged by his wife, enrolled in CNM in 2014 to lay the groundwork for a transfer to UNM.
Michelle got an AA from CNM in 2006 and worked at To'hajiilee Behavioral Health and in the district court there before realizing she needed a four-year degree to advance.
"The AA degree was just enough to get me in the door," she says, "but I realized if I wanted to go further I'd have to go back."
With two children, Hailey, now 5, and Miles, 3, they lived at home on the reservation and commuted into Albuquerque for classes. Living in the two worlds came with conflicts.
"My wife and I, we've experienced asking questions and being in the city," says Chad. "My mom and my dad say, 'You guys ask a lot of questions. You guys act too perfect.'"
"Getting an education definitely changes your personality, the way you interact, the way you communicate. That's the challenge of the first-generation college student," says Michelle. "You change. So when you interact with your family you're not who you once were anymore and that can really pull families apart. We noticed that early on."
To break down those barriers, they decided to involve their families and community elders in their research projects and cited them as scholars with knowledge of Native American history.
"Education builds confidence and a new attitude, a new perspective," says Michelle. "When they say to us, 'You've changed,' I say, 'We're still us; we're just a little bit enhanced.''
Chad plans to go to law school and Michelle is looking toward a master's degree, and they are counting on their children to become Lobos.
It's just the outcome that proponents of breaking down barriers to college hope for.
"If we can get students who have never had a successful college completion in their family and get them there," UNM's Babbitt says, "that opens the door for their brothers and sisters, their children. So I think it's one of our biggest priorities and accomplishments."