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Celebrating First Generation College Students

Nov 09th, 2017

This week American Student Assistance® (ASA) was proud to join with the higher education and college access community to commemorate the First Annual First-Generation College Celebration. Fittingly, the Celebration coincides with the anniversary of the passage of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which helped open the doors of college to Americans from all walks of life by making access to student aid widely available for the first time.

With no existing network of experienced family members to lean on, “first-gen” students (whose parents did not receive a baccalaureate degree) often face a myriad of challenges navigating the complex world of higher education. I remember my own first-gen experiences trying to find my way through the college application and financial aid process. As an only child whose dad joined the army out of high school and whose mom had dropped out of college, I had the small advantage of at least one parent who had some familiarity with college admissions. And I had a much larger leg up in that I was lucky enough to attend a well-respected public (i.e., free) college prep high school. Even with the resources of my high school at my disposal, though, making my way through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) was no easy task.

My mom had gone to college in the years immediately following the HEA, but the world of student aid had expanded vastly in the intervening 20 years. We were vaguely aware that “financial aid” was available for students like me, but didn’t really know what that meant. I had my heart set on attending New York University – so much so that I didn’t even bother to apply for a scholarship that Boston University offered to students at my high school. And so I did attend NYU, with a financial aid package that, while generous, still required me to borrow student loans. Fast forward a year and a half later, when I’d figured out New York wasn’t the place for me (you can take the girl out of Boston but not Boston out of the girl!) and I was headed back home to – you guessed it – Boston University. Except by this time the scholarship was off the table, so I had to take out more loans.

Now, my story had a happy ending. This being 20 years ago, I paid off the loans without much hardship so I never regretted the NYU decision; at least I knew I had tried the Big Apple and didn’t have to wonder “what if.” But I do wish that my younger self had known about resources like American Student Assistance’s College Planning Centers. Every day at the Centers, our counselors help students of all ages as they plan to attend college, helping them select the right postsecondary option, apply, find financial aid, and choose a major or career. The Centers are open to all students regardless of background, but 74 percent of all students served are low-income, first-gen; 95 percent of these students go on to successfully apply for federal student aid, and 86 percent who are college ready successfully enroll in a program of postsecondary education.

Sixteen out of 17 staff members at the Center were themselves first-generation college students and are now “paying it forward” in careers they have chosen to help prospective students succeed. Counselors like Ellen Ronayne, a first generation college graduate who says she “barely graduated” from her first institution of higher learning, but who then went on to complete two more degrees – including a bachelor of arts in history from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. Her entire career has been devoted to helping others succeed, beginning with jobs in the admissions office at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Aquinas College-Newton before coming to the Center, where she has worked for the past 18 years. Neither of my parents went to college, so my siblings and I are first generation,” explains Ellen. “That’s made it easier for me to relate to the fears and insecurities of both our young and adult clients.”

Another of our counselors, Jingting Long, came to the United States as a junior in high school. When an unexpected opportunity required that she take the SAT test, she seized the opportunity to apply for four-year colleges, despite a significant language barrier and limited time to plan for college. Ms. Long went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Bridgewater State University, where she majored in art and minored in Asian studies. Jinting’s college experiences gave her an appreciation for the value of higher education and a passion for helping others on their educational journey. “I am the first in my family to go to college,” she says. “The education I received and the professors I had helped me grow to a better version of myself, and this I will appreciate for life.”

Had I met up with Ellen or Jinting back in the day, they might have convinced me to at least apply for the BU scholarship as a back-up to my NYU plan. They might not have changed my mind – and that might not have even been for the worse. After all, there’s something to be said for exploring life’s many options when you’re 18. But the reality is the student loan landscape has dramatically shifted in the last 20 years, and using college to explore is a costly proposition these days. Services at the Centers are a vital resource for first-gen students, who can really use words of advice from folks who’ve walked in their shoes. So here’s to first-gen students everywhere who are overcoming steep obstacles to achieve their dreams – and the professionals lifting them up along the way.

Here are a few pictures from our event: