• Hector Salas

Forging a path of success for first-generation students

To be first-generation and Latino is to forge your own path twofold, in education and a rugged economy that suppresses working-class families of color.


“First-generation” typically means that a student’s parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree. However, this definition doesn’t take into account the diversity within the pool of first-generation students. For example, a student’s parents could have attended a higher education institution for a year or two, or they could have not graduated high school. Even still, first-generation may encompass being the first in a family to be born in the U.S. For some, deciding to be the first in their families to attend higher education is a choice. For others, it's a painful reality.


First-Gen


The Postsecondary National Policy Group reports that “Latinos are much more likely to be first-generation college students than other racial/ethnic groups.”


In the 2015–16 academic year, 44% of Latinos were the first in their family to attend college, compared to Black (34%), Asian (29%) and White (22%) students.


A student can be first-generation for a plethora of reasons, but shared are the effects of this status among the population of students that wear this badge proudly. Often, the guard rails are off when exploring higher education as a first-generation student. These students search for higher education opportunities on their own, having little to fall back on if the venture fails.


This boom or bust reality for Latino students often places extra stress over the financial burden of obtaining a higher education.


Cost is a significant influence whether a student goes to college or not in working-class families. Pricing can inform every level of a student’s higher education experience, from their housing to if they can afford to eat breakfast with their meal plan.


The result of this financial burden then emphasizes receiving financial aid.


Nationwide, about 40% of Latino college students received Pell Grants during the 2015-2016 academic year, making up over 20% of all Pell Grant Recipients. Despite this, Latinos average the lowest amount of federal aid received among all ethnic groups by over $1,000. Coupled with the fact that 32% of Latinos work 40 hours or more a week, most stress radiating from higher education roots itself in pricing.


And Latino leaders understand the importance of removing financial barriers.


Voces Unidas conducted a state-wide survey that polled the important issues facing Latino communities. This survey encompassed over 1,000 Latino adults and 168 Latino leaders. Results found that 98% of Latino leaders had “decreasing the cost of college tuition” as one of their top five issues they consider a priority.


Latino leaders advocating for lowering cost of higher education highlight how important the voices are in advancing first-generation students through the educational system.


The effects of Latina and Latino leaders in power


“I am performing mentorship for my Latino and Latina students,” said Celeste Martinez, Manager of First Impressions at Colorado Mesa University. “My entire team of students who identify as first-gen Latinx are going through the same struggles I did. They rely on me to help them push through boundaries and build up the confidence to believe in themselves. For some Latinos, higher education seems entirely unattainable and it’s important to help them realize that with the drive, hard work and determination our immigrant parents have we can develop that into something amazing such as an education ending in a degree.”


Latina and Latino leaders in higher education play a vital role in the success of working-class Latino students in education. Often, these leaders do their contractual duties while assuming the responsibility of advising Latino students, many of whom are first-generation, through their higher education careers. It’s a cultural weight that many other workers in higher education do not carry. Yet, our Latina and Latino leaders lead this effort both with administrative and cultural pressures, all without additional compensation.


These leaders understand the importance of lending a helping hand.


“The importance of having a cultural ally is underrated, not only for educational purposes but for health reasons as well,” said Colorado Mesa University Residence Hall Coordinator Linda Ramirez-Torres. She handles housing for hundreds of students at the university, many of whom are living by themselves for the first time. Part of her job requires her to intervene in mental and physical health crises.


“I recently had the opportunity where a Latina student confided in me that they were having the ‘worst day’ of her life. There had been a language barrier at a time that brought her great fear and loneliness. When this student found out that I spoke Spanish she turned into a whole other person. She thanked me and hugged me saying that no one understood her because her accent was too thick. This student felt instant relief having a Latino leader that she could relate to,” Torres said.


From 2010 to 2020, Latinos aged 25-29 who graduated high school increased from 69% to 90%. Regarding higher education, the rate of Latinos that received their bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 13% to 25%.


There are a variety of reasons as to why the numbers have jumped, including the leadership and guidance of Latinas and Latinos occupying positions of power. Within institutions, these leaders are able to make a difference in the individual lives of our first-generation students.


“Never be scared to ask for help. You will not be perceived as weak or incapable. It is important to get to the finish line, and without the support of other first-generation Latinos or ally’s it will be harder to do so,” said Martinez.



Alone


The Latino first-gen student struggling with navigating college, forced to forge their own path forward, constantly making decisions that will affect the rest of their young life, can feel alone.


It's taxing to the mind and body when you're alone in higher education. Extreme work ethic was instilled within us from a young age, leaving the responsibility of changing our material conditions to those suppressed the most by systemic influences.


Hard work will take an individual far, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s the communal approach to success that creates systemic change within our local communities.


Students navigating the choppy collegiate waters find reprieve in mentorships with people that understand their plight because they too share this pain. With some help, the water calms enough to get through the other side.


Within the vast pool of Latino first-generation students, each marching forward by the beat of their own drum is a comfort that they share their experience with many. Whether it is a fellow student or a mentor figure found in higher education, the shared experience communities draw inspiration from is irreplaceable and unreplaceable.


“I think a lot of Latinos are realizing that they have contributed to our community for far too long on minimum wage and it’s time to pursue higher education,” said Jasmin Ramirez, Board Member for the Roaring Fork School District.


“Let’s also recognize that we have a lot of immigrant students that don’t qualify for DACA and so it is really important for our community to hear Latino leaders as they advocate to legislators that not only does education need intentional funding, but there has to be an emphasis in giving brown and black children across Colorado a better opportunity to pursue higher education,” she continued.


The unreasonable weight of history is placed upon the shoulders of our community’s youth. Now, more than ever, do we recognize the need to help these students carry that load. Doing so requires the help of our community, allies and institutions that proactively push for the success of these working-class Latino students.


This is why educational institutions both in K-12 and at universities have a responsibility to create and maintain a system where diverse groups of individuals exist at the student, faculty, staff and administrative level. Without proper representation in all sectors of the institution, our communities cannot functionally be set up for success.


Hector Salas writes for Voces Unidas. He is a graduate of Colorado Mesa University and grew up in Rifle, Colorado. Hector covers politics and power concerning Western Colorado.



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