First-generation college students are simply those who are the first in their family to attend college. They would be the academic trailblazers in their family to make a dream come true. Moving beyond the fantasy of what college might be for a young, motivated and idealistic young adult, the reality for so many first-generation college students is one faced with challenges.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation college students tend to graduate at lower rates than their peers with parents who earned a four-year college degree. Many of these students are forced to drop out due to not being prepared for the rigor of college courses, and social or economic issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the struggles many students already face.
Question: Tell me a little about yourself and your desire to go to college.
Arielle: My dad’s family came to the United States from Colombia and Mexico and my mom’s family came from El Salvador. Both my parents have encouraged me to work hard and take pride in everything I do, especially when it comes to school. They have sacrificed a lot for me and my three younger siblings and I want nothing more than to make them proud and hopefully one day be self-sufficient in life. I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by family, counselors and my mentor who have encouraged and pushed me to go to college. I decided to go to a local community college to save money and complete my undergraduate courses. I’ve been in college for three years now and adjustment has been difficult.
Question: Do you feel you were well prepared for college and knew what to expect?
Arielle: I kind of knew what to expect because my former high school helped me explore my options. We took college tours, had informative visits from college representatives and I asked teachers how they felt about their college experiences. I also took a few AP courses which helped me prepare for the fast pace and workload. Going to college was still challenging and I don’t think I was entirely prepared. I had to experience it for myself and figure out what worked best for me. I didn’t see myself as being the best student in high school and I found time management to be the most challenging, but eventually I got the hang of it.
I was also encouraged to take the SAT, but I declined because I didn’t think I had what it took to do well on it and I didn’t want to financially put my parents or myself in a bad spot if I went to a 4-year college. I just didn’t have enough faith in myself at the time nor the money. It helped to have a mentor who went to college and constantly guides me in the right direction when I feel stuck and I’m so grateful to have her in my life.
Question: What do you worry about as you attend college for the first time and what has been your biggest challenge?
Arielle: In the beginning, my concern was choosing a major. I’m an artist and wanted to major in art but afraid of being pinned as “the starving artist” and constantly struggling financially. I know what that’s like. I also want to pick a major that would provide health insurance, and a good retirement plan. I don’t want to struggle financially and I want to be able to take care of myself. I, however, also want to work in my passion and that would be art. This is what truly makes me happy.
I try hard to be the best at everything I do to make my family proud, and sometimes I fall short. I’ve always struggled with school and getting good grades. In college, I tried to live up to those expectations but it stressed me out too much. What I’ve learned is to just try my best and be proud of myself despite the outcome and simply move at my own pace. My purpose in college is to soak up as much knowledge as I can and add some skills to my life.
One of my biggest challenges has been finding the motivation to finish college. I’ve wanted to give up at times but also know if I don’t finish, my options will be limited. The most challenging of all these years has to be going to college during a pandemic. I have three younger siblings and we all need to use the internet, which is spotty at times, and we all need a quiet place to work.
Question: Do you have any financial concerns about paying for college?
Arielle: As of right now, no. Community college is fairly affordable and I can pay for it through financial aid, Cal Grants, working part-time, selling art, and having small side jobs. What I worry about the most is how to pay for college when I transfer to a California State University. I’ve been a full-time student since I’ve started college but I know tuition, textbooks, art materials and school supplies will be much more expensive. I may need to work full-time and go to school part-time to finish. Since I want to transfer soon, I’m going to try to work two part-time jobs and take 16 units to start saving money.
Question: What are your future plans using your future college degree?
Arielle: I am currently a Studio Arts major and I will transfer next fall from my local community college to California State University, Long Beach. I would like to receive a B.A. in either Illustration or the Fine Arts. Eventually, if I’m able to, I’d like to continue my education and earn my Masters as well as my PhD and teach Art at the college level.
Question: What would you suggest to a first-generation college student to do in order to become successful in college?
Despite the myriad of barriers in her pursuit to become the first in her family to graduate from a postsecondary institution, Arielle Zepeda has the grit, determination and savvy to reach her goals. She will continue to persevere and push forward. I personally know this to be true because I have been mentoring her for over 8 years. Most students just need a combination of simple nudges and regular check-ins. Navigating through college alone can be an overwhelming experience, but it doesn’t have to be if a mentor can help navigate these deep, foreign waters. Simply by mentoring, a person can greatly enhance a student’s chances of success.