Tuesday, October 29, 2013

College Trailblazers

Do you represent the first generation in your family to attend college?
Did you know that there is an increasingly visible movement to advocate for students who are among the first in their family to attend - or graduate from - college?
There is even a hashtag devoted to supporting College Trailblazers - #firstgen.
There is also  documentary on the topic - First Generation.

So who are our College Trailblazers, or first generation college students?
With each passing month, the definition appears to acquiesce around a simple concept: First Generation college students are those students whose parents did not attend college. The idea of clearly defining and articulating who is included in this group is to break down barriers to higher education, since the process seems to grow more complex and challenging every year, although the new common app is trying to remedy that. There have historically been clear gaps in access to higher education, along racial, gender, and class lines, and when a student is the first in their family to apply to college, certain tasks that are necessary to the process become overwhelming, especially without parents who have been through it before.

Which is why we need to expand the definition beyond simply "students whose parents didn't attend college" to include:
  • Students whose parents didn't finish college - perhaps the parents weren't equipped with the proper infrastructure prior to college, and are possibly not informed enough to prepare their children for the multitude of developmental tasks critical for college completion.
  • Students whose "parents" may have attended or finished college, but are being raised by family members who didn't attend, or who even so far as completed colleges, but well over 40 years ago when the process was entirely different from how it works now.
  • Students who are under the care of institutional systems, and therefore whose adult supervision is often too inconsistent to give daily support and guidance throughout the process, not to mention the added challenge of needing to defer to bureaucracy when having forms co-signed and paying for things like transportation and college visits.
  • Students whose parents may have attended college, but did so in other countries, where the admissions process is entirely different - some international college admissions processes are as simple as using one test score to dictate whether - and where - a student attends college. The American system is so nuanced that it is often overwhelming to parents who emigrated to the United States. Add to that the "American Dream" of taking advantage of this newfound opportunity by giving one's child the chance to go to the "best" college in the "best" country in the world, and students are caught in a quagmire.
So what do all of these College Trailblazers have in common? Drive. Determination. The will to transcend their current situation, with the understanding that they need to work to do so, but often without the resources to help navigate. ...Right up until admissions counselors review the applications. Thankfully, school counselors and admissions committees are there to advocate for our College Trailblazers. These two groups of professionals understand the obstacles facing such an underrepresented group of students, and keep looking for ways to support them through the process.

So if you are a College Trailblazer or first generation student (by any definition), the first and most critical thing to do is to identify yourself accordingly. Meet with your school counselor and discuss the challenges you face. When you interact with admissions counselors on college visits or information sessions at school, ask them what their college does to support first generation college students. Find ways on your application and essay to remind them of how being #firstgen shapes both your dreams and your experiences chasing those dreams.

Then, follow these ten steps to college attendance, in their simplest form:

  1. Do your best in high school classes that suit both your interests and skills.
  2. Study for the SAT and ACT, and take each one at least once - register before the deadline in spring of junior year.
  3. Visit colleges in sophomore year to get a sense of what you like and dislike about college campuses, then meet with your school counselor to process those priorities.
  4. Meet with your school counselor during junior year to evaluate your transcript and make a plan for visiting college campuses that meet your priorities and academic needs.
  5. Prepare your essay during the summer prior to senior year.
  6. Apply to 4-8 colleges that you and your school counselor agree are a good fit for your interests and needs. "Apply" oversimplifies the process, but school counselors can help if you meet with them regularly.
  7. Ensure that your applications (including high school transcript, letters of recommendation, and SAT/ACT scores) arrive to the colleges to which you are applying arrive by the stated deadlines.
  8. In December, request your PIN from www.pin.gov and do the same with whichever parent you have lived with for the majority of that calendar year.
  9. In January, complete the FAFSA at www.fafsa.gov using your income and the income of the parent who requested their PIN as early in January as possible.
  10. Aid letters should go out by the end of March, and commit to the college of your choice by May 1 by sending your deposit.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges through all this is the misconception that you are alone. Once you own your #firstgen status, you can begin to identify and associate with others who share your experience. Then, it's just a matter of finding mentors and peers who support you. No one is truly alone.

If you'd like to comment on being first generation, don't hesitate to tweet with the #firstgen and/or #PHSfit hashtag!

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