MEGAN CATTEL, HOST: Today is National College Decision day. It’s the deadline for students who have been accepted to colleges to decide which school they’ll go to. It can be a difficult choice that’s further complicated by the emotional and financial burdens of coronavirus. But one group of students is facing a unique set of challenges. As Janmaris Perez finds, for those who are first-generation students, the first in their families to go to college, deciding where to go is just the beginning in a series of challenges.
JANMARIS PEREZ, BYLINE: Many college students have fond memories of the moment they were accepted to the school of their dreams. There’s crying, screaming, laughing, and then more crying – like in this YouTube clip of a student reading her acceptance email from UPenn. ((SOUND: family cheering)) PEREZ: But, when 21-year-old Khiabet Leal read the letter and email that told her she’d been accepted to both of her dream schools, the news was bittersweet. KHIABET LEAL: I was really happy and excited and like, you know, throwing, like, happy dances all over the place, but then I had to come back to reality and sit down and just be like, “Hey, guys, so I got accepted here, and I really want to go here. How are we going to, you know, do this?” PEREZ: That’s because Leal is a first-generation student. Neither of her parents went to college. They’re both from Mexico and only have a middle school education. Leal’s mom is a babysitter and her dad is a waiter at an Italian restaurant in Midtown. They’ve had fewer opportunities to work high-paying jobs. So, as proud as they were of Leal’s aspirations, they just couldn’t afford them. Leal dreamed about going away for college like she had seen in the movies. Instead, she’s going to a local school and living at home in Astoria, Queens. LEAL: So my mom's in the kitchen right now blasting her music. Typical she comes and washes dishes and you know, she does all that stuff. And then my sister can't really hear the TV so she has to put it up really, really loud. And then there's me in the middle of both of these loud noises trying to do homework. PEREZ: According to the Center for First-generation Success, first-gen students, like Leal, make up almost half of all undergraduates enrolled at four-year universities. Its data also shows that the median household income for first-generation students is almost 30% below the national average. This means these students can have a harder time getting accepted to, affording, and succeeding in college. Now, the global pandemic is highlighting these obstacles. Leal is a senior at Queens College and gets help from New York State’s SEEK program, which stands for “Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge.” SEEK offers support for first-gen students, like Leal, and helps her with tuition. But she still has to cover a lot on her own. LEAL: And like some classes need so many things. You need the textbooks, but you also need these other books. And I'm like, wow, like do I really need this right now? PEREZ: Juggling full-time classes and work means Leal has a lot going on. LEAL: I was working two jobs. And you know, I was taking, I believe I was taking 21 credits. I'm not sure though. I think it was 18 or 21 credits my freshman year um – PEREZ: Wait, you were taking 18 credits and working two jobs your Freshman year? How did you balance all of that? LEAL: I honestly don’t know. PEREZ: Leal says it was really stressful. Her parents didn’t have the experience to guide her on studying for finals or navigating other kinds of challenges college can bring: registering for classes, being on hold with financial aid. Allyson Levy is a programming director at CUNY’s College Access: Research and Action program. She says it’s hard to get help at home when you don’t have someone in your family who’s been there and done that. ALLYSON LEVY: There are something like 35 different steps you have to complete for financial aid and making mistakes in any one of those can really take money off the table for students. PEREZ: And there are other circumstances to consider – LEVY: It's also a really daunting process of navigating these things, possibly in a language that's not theirs. PEREZ: – and Levy says there are cultural differences, too. LEVY: We do sometimes have students who maybe aren't permitted to go away or aren't encouraged to go away to college because they have home responsibilities that you know, are as expected as part of their family. PEREZ: Like caring for younger siblings or helping with a family business. For Leal, this means paying for her school expenses and chipping in with her family’s bills when money is tight. She was working as a hostess at a restaurant. But now, restaurants are closed, so Leal and her dad are both out of work. Her dad filed for unemployment last month and bills are piling up. She’s stressed out and worried that her teachers aren’t aware of her circumstances. LEAL: I'm over here thinking how I'm gonna have to help pay for rent or stuff like that, you know. People don't realize that there’s more to life than like, handing in papers. PEREZ: Andrea Lopez works at Columbia’s Community College Research Center. She conducts research on student support services among underrepresented students. She says first-gen students don’t just worry that teachers won’t understand their struggles, but also that they’ll look at them differently. LEAL: When I first got into college, I thought I was just gonna be like a number to people. Like, yeah, we accept people like her, you know: first-gen and she's Latina, but she’s also American, blah, blah, blah. PEREZ: Lopez is worried about how Covid will impact first-generation students who already felt like they didn’t belong in college. ANDREA LOPEZ: We may not see them return the following semester. I feel like those groups are at risk for postponing or even dropping out completely. PEREZ: Stacey Kostell is CEO of the Coalition for College Access. She offers this advice to first-gen students who may be feeling discouraged. STACEY KOSTELL: We know that things come along and all of our lives that sometimes we may have had a big plan to go across the country and now we need to stay home for a semester or year. And I think that's okay. I just think you don't have to forget your dream. You just may have to approach it a little bit differently. PEREZ: Back in Queens, despite all the challenges, Khiabet Leal is determined to finish her degree with a double major in drama and elementary education. LEAL: I remember I was really nervous and scared to say that I was a first generation college student, and I felt ashamed of it. But I embrace it now. People want to see you, you know, be a change and people actually believe in you. PEREZ: As she works on her lesson plans from home, Leal can’t wait to be back in the classroom. She wants to set an example for her future students.
Janmaris Perez, Columbia Radio News