First generation at college? ARHS staff provide support, inspiration

First generation college students cite a desire to “help my family in the future.”Photo: Flickr

About 19.9 million US students are currently attending a college or university according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Of those students 30% are the first in their family to pursue a degree, earning them the name “first generation students.” 

First generation students may face different challenges than students whose parents who have earned college degrees, but they also have unprecedented opportunities. 

Argel Hernandez Amaya, a first generation student, said that he wants to go to college to challenge himself and to access “better opportunities” than his family has had.  

His parents support his decision. “They sometimes care about [college] more than I do,” he said.

Hernandez Amaya’s parents have encouraged him to study for the SAT and made sure he is keeping up with college paperwork and planning. Though, he said “they don’t really know how [the college process] works.”

Brayan Rivas Martinez, also a first generation student, said that his family is very excited for college. 

His family wants him to go to school close, “as close as possible,” because they have not had a student leave for college before.

His family has helped him fill out some of his college paperwork, but Rivas Martinez has had to explain parts of the college process to them. 

Going to college for Rivas Martinez is a part of “helping my family in the future.”  

Support in the district

Anastasia Morton, who is the Youth Leadership Coordinator for the Amherst Regional Public Schools Family Center, works to “support all students and their families.”

The Family Center assists students of all ages, even after they graduate from high school. 

As the Youth Leadership Coordinator, she works with students at each school in the district to help them achieve academically and grow as leaders in their communities. 

According to Morton, “growing youth leaders” looks different at different ages. 

At the middle school, she created lunch groups to give students time to work on homework and build a culture centered around learning and success. 

She also brings middle school students on field trips to visit local colleges, so they begin setting their sights high from a young age.

At the high school, Morton runs groups that help students learn about life after high school and skills that will help them in the long term. 

She said one hurdle first generation students may face is judgments others have made about their “long-term capabilities.” 

These judgments are internalized by students which “crushes their spirit and does not give them space to fly like a bird,” said Morton. 

Instead, she said, adults need to help students acquire the skills they need rather than judging them for skills they may not have developed. 

When students have college educated parents and more money, not only do they have more resources, but they may have more encouragement and support. 

“Because [first-gen students may] have to pay for it themselves, they may be told to dream less,” said Morton. 

The true support needed for first generation students in Morton’s opinion is “repetition, motivation, and [access to a] variety of resources,” including for their families.

ARHS provides what Morton feels is “a lot of support” with FAFSA workshops and many meetings with guidance counselors. 

“[Guidance secretary Crystal] Garrity is the bomb, [administrative assistant Cathy] Tracy is the bomb,” said Morton. 

College and Career Counselor Deidre Cuffee-Gray is also passionate about “having a conversation with every single senior” to talk about their hopes and dreams and provide her personal and institutional support. 

She persists, “even if they never want to see me again.”

Cuffee-Gray said that most ninth graders expect to attend college after high school, regardless of their family situation, but by senior year the numbers drop. 

This change can be caused by how a student’s self-confidence changes during the high school years.

Once there

When first generation students get to college, despite all the support in high school, they can still struggle–academically, economically, socially, and culturally.

 “When [they have moments they feel they] can’t do it, they feel like it’s their fault, like they are not capable of it, and that’s not true,” said Morton.

She said she tries to help students think about college with a growth mindset, and knowing that struggle is normal and they should not blame themselves.

“You have to be a beast,” she said. “You have paid your tuition, and you need to make sure [people provide you with the support you need].” 

Cuffee-Gray agreed. She said being the first in your family to go to college is no doubt “a challenge, but you have to keep your head in the game.”

According to Cuffee-Gray, “there are so many people behind first-gen students, cheering them on.”