First in the Family
ADVICE ABOUT COLLEGE FROM FIRST-GENERATION STUDENTS
Your College Years
BY KATHLEEN CUSHMAN
“I didn’t have a big sister or brother or even a
cousin to go to and say, ‘What did you do in
order to get in?’ So I read other people’s accounts
in books. Things don’t always fall in your lap,
you know what I’m saying? Like, everybody’s
not searching you out. You have to take the
initiative.” – NIEMA
“Education was going to be my ticket out of here.
The first train that comes to Nashville, I’m getting
on it. I won’t be defined by a statistic, like ‘how
people who grow up in this area are more likely
to turn out.’ Not me! I won’t!” – ERIC
“My identity in my house is ‘the one that goes
to college, the one that’s trying to do something
for her life.’ Everybody looks at me, they’re proud
of me. Just to know that somebody is proud of
you makes you even reach for more.” – AILEEN
CALLY ROBYN WOLK
First in the Family
ADVICE ABOUT COLLEGE FROM FIRST-GENERATION STUDENTS
Your College Years
BY KATHLEEN CUSHMAN
Providence, Rhode Island
Copyright © by Next Generation Press
Next Generation Press
All rights reserved.
For additional copies in quantities of ten or more,
please contact Next Generation Press at
Book design by Sandra Delany.
Support for this book came from Lumina Founda
Generous support for this book came from Lumina Foundation
for Education.The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and
do not necessarily represent official policies or positions of Lumina
Foundation for Education.
Abe Louise Young deserves enormous credit for her help in developing
this volume. She arranged student interviews and conducted two of them,
and, in the final writing stages, she provided essential editorial guidance.
Irina Feygina and Celia Bohannon also contributed significantly to the
work of organizing the student voices presented here, and Rosa Fernández
helped develop the worksheets and appendixes. Montana Miller gave
generously of her expertise throughout the interviewing process. As the
book’s photography editor, Barbara Cervone brought in images that could
reflect the power of these students’ experiences.
Next Generation Press owes its greatest thanks to the college students
whose insights and advice make up the substance of this book.They
came to us with the assistance of the following people and organizations:
Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi at the University of Texas in Austin; Patty
Chong-Delon at City College of San Francisco; Pete Coser at Oklahoma
State University; Bjorn Danielson at the Center for Native Education at
Antioch University in Seattle; Chris Douse at Indiana/Purdue University
at Fort Wayne; Jennifer Frank at the Community College of Denver; John
Hilley and Anderson Williams at Community IMPACT in Nashville; Dr.
Virginia Jane Rosser at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; Darrick
Smith at Oakland Technical Arts High School; Irene Sterling at the Paterson
Education Fund; and the Rural Schools and Community Trust.
INTRODUCTION ………………………… vii
1. YOU’RE ON YOUR WAY
College is a journey of discovery …………………. 1
2. FACING THE HURDLES
College can be a culture shock …………………. 10
3. IT’S YOUR TIME
Take charge of your academic choices ……………… 19
4. ENLARGING YOUR CIRCLE
Make relationships that help you do well ……………. 31
5. THE HOURS OF YOUR DAY
How to manage your time and resources ……………. 44
6. READING, WRITING, AND AIMING HIGH
Your critical college skills can only get better ………….. 63
7. GOOD TIMES AND HARD TIMES
College is a social and emotional experience ………….. 72
8. WHO ARE YOU NOW?
You develop a new identity while at college ………….. 87
9. REACHING BACK HOME
Will your family and friends change, too? ……………. 98
10. PA S S I T F O RWARD
You’ll help those who follow you ……………….. 113
USEFUL RESOURCES …………………… 115
THE STUDENT CONTRIBUTORS ……………… 122
When you pick up this book, you are finished with high
school for good—in fact, it may be already long in your past.
You have a new goal now, a harder one: to get yourself through college
and earn the degree that can change your life.
You can think in a new way about your learning now. In this mindset,
grades and deadlines continue to matter, but your education no longer
feels like a race with an end. Instead, it’s a continuing journey of discovery.
All during your college years, you will be finding your way to your
dream.You’ll have hard work to do on this journey: thinking through
difficult material, writing well, asking questions that push you further.
But you will acquire new tools that help you to do that work, and meet
experts who will teach you to use them.
Not just the work but the relationships you forge in college make you
stronger, smarter, and wiser. Getting to know other students, you will dig
into the challenges of academic learning and increase your understanding
of the diverse world that awaits you. Forming ties with your professors, you
will discover new fields of study, new ways of thinking about the world.
Your degree will bring many rewards—partly because you can expect to
earn more as a college graduate. Its most important rewards, however, come
from the qualities you will be developing as you make your way: independence, initiative, confidence, and self-direction on your path through life.
Whether you attend a private four-year college, a state university, or the
local community college, you have much to learn from others who have
gone before you. In this book, students like you lend a hand along your
college journey.They share their experiences, offer their guidance, and give
you some practical tools for getting where you want to go.They hope that
their conversation will open up possibilities for you and encourage you
when you need it most. Each one of them has learned so much in college—
about themselves, and about the larger world. Now it’s your turn!
YOU’RE ON YOUR WAY 1
You’re on your way
College is a journey of discovery
E ric Polk sat in the front seat of the car that was taking
him away to college and tried to make sense of the mixed emotions
he felt. Behind the wheel was his mentor, John, a community leader who
had helped him come the distance from the poorest section of Nashville,
Tennessee, to college acceptance at Wake Forest University. A few hours
before, Eric had said goodbye to his mother and grandmother, his favorite
teacher, his old friends from the neighborhood. He was pulling away
from them now, yet at the same time carrying them with him.
He remembered every one of his struggles to become the first in his
family to attend college.Yes, he was proud and excited—but why did he
feel such a knot in his stomach?
» I started thinking about all the highs and all the lows, and just seeing my
life flash by. And it felt like a long journey to freedom. Like, man, I’m leaving
everything behind that was challenging me, that didn’t want me to be here,
or that pushed me or pulled me to get here. It was like, “I’m on my way!”
I was anxious, I was nervous, I was excited, I was scared! – ERIC
When you get the news that you are accepted to college, you have every
reason to celebrate.You are also striking out into new territory, however,
especially if no one in your family has gone before you. Any explorer feels
the excitement and the worry that Eric describes, at the beginning of a
journey of discovery. In the pages that follow, other students tell how they
crossed the bridge into their college years.
Remember why you’re going to college.
You already know that your college degree can make a big difference to
the life you will lead in the future.You may not have decided what you
want to do with your education, but you have plenty of reasons to get it.
YOU’RE ON YOUR WAY 3
» They said, “You could do it, you just have to go to school for it!” That’s
when I started thinking about the options I had, and I started researching
it. I consider them my parents in a way. When I have a problem and I come
to them, they understand me and help me fix it. – AILEEN
Such assistance might come from your community or from the people
you meet at college.Wherever you find it, that support can help you make
important decisions and adjustments throughout the years ahead. Keep
your eyes open from the start for the people who reach out to you.They
will be your guides through unfamiliar territory.
College is about change and discovery.
As you get to know more about your choices at college, you may start to
discover new interests and develop in new directions.You could change
your ideas of who you are and what your future might hold.Those close
to you might understand and support your new ideas, or maybe you will
feel their disapproval.
Stephen Torres grew up, the son of a barber, in a Mexican-American
neighborhood near Austin,Texas. An excellent math student in high school,
he attended a summer course at the University of Texas that introduced
minority students to the field of engineering.When he won a scholarship
and began his first year at the university, everybody thought he would
go on to be an engineer. But as he became involved in Latino groups on
campus, his interests turned to politics.
» I thought, “Wow, this is college, so let me get a little understanding of what
it really has to offer.” I love engineering, but when I really realized how
much my identity and my background meant to me, I changed my major to
Mexican-American Studies. I didn’t want to sit by myself in an engineering
bubble, stuck on that side of campus among the same people. I could do
a lot more by working to define policy-making for urban and rural school
districts, and things like that. – STEPHEN
When you start college, you bring along not just your own hopes
and expectations, but also those of your family and others who care about
you.Your former teachers may already picture you on a certain career
Mike Morris came from rural Mississippi and felt deep loyalty to
the aunt who had raised him. He struggled with academics, but Brigham
Young University in Utah offered him an athletic scholarship. Mike went
off to college far from home, in a place where he often felt like a stranger.
Even when a football injury put him on the bench, he kept his eyes on
the degree that could lift his family out of poverty.
» I’m in college for them—to better them, give them a chance. As long as
I can get my aunt her first house, her first own land, and help my cousin
out with her child, I’m happy. – MIKE
Debra Graves worked from the time she was a teenager to support her
young sons as a single mother. For her, starting community college near
her home in Denver was a chance to have people take her seriously.
Through the mayor’s office, she received a grant to study in a field that
» I saw this quote, “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t throw it
in the nest.” That, to me, means everything. Dreams are out there waiting
for me, but I’ve got to do the work to make them happen. If I want my
children to be successful, I don’t leave that in someone else’s hands. If
I want to do well in school, then I’m the one responsible for it. That’s what
drives me. – DEBRA
You’ll need good guides to help you through.
Like many other students in this book, you might have had help from others
as you decided to apply to college and gained your admission. Now you
are on your way, but during what lies ahead, you will need even more
Aileen Rosario is in college because she wants to be a lawyer. In
Paterson, New Jersey, her family struggled with hard times, and her high
school counselors discouraged her from college. But her supervisors at a
nonprofit education group—who once were first-generation students,
too—took her ambition seriously. Aileen has now finished two years at
her local community college and is enrolled in a state university. She still
works at the same place, and her employers still stand behind her.
2 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
YOU’RE ON YOUR WAY 5
her classmates. But as her first year went on, she also started to see the
positive edge that her tough Oakland upbringing gave her.
She knew how to handle herself in a city like Chicago, whereas a lot
of her classmates had no clue. In her journalism class, she could get stories that others were afraid to go near—interviews with people living in
housing projects or on the streets. And she could live on very little money.
» Most college students don’t have enough money to go out and do whatever
it is they want to do. And if you come from a background where there’s
been penny pinching, you know how to handle that. The struggles we’ve
gone through have prepared me for my life as a college student, and also
prepared me for my future career. In some ways it gives me a bonus.
Not only that, but her own experiences could educate and enlighten
others, Niema realized. She had fought an uphill battle to get to college—
and that gave her plenty of muscle. Her fellow students saw that and they
often came to her for advice.
» People in college have breakdowns—it happens. And a lot of times they’ll
come to you for help, because they see that strength that you built up
through whatever difficult and chaotic struggles you had. They’re like,
“Wow, how are you so strong?” – NIEMA
As a minority student who came from a rough section of Cleveland,
Raja Fattah knew that he stood out on the largely white campus of Kent
State University in Ohio. But he saw that as an advantage, especially with
his major in justice studies.
» In our country right now, it gives you an edge automatically, because our
country is not just white Anglo-Saxon Americans like in the 1800s! It’s
diversified. I’m Palestinian, so I had a foundation set for Arabic. – RAJA
Raja decided to make the most of his family’s native language by taking
more courses in Arabic language. Combining that with a degree in justice
studies, he would stand a better chance of achieving his dream, to work
for the F.B.I.
path.Your family might expect you to keep helping out in the ways you
did before.Your romantic partner may expect to stay together, or you
might have children who need your attention.
Perhaps everybody assumes that you will return to your old neighborhood after you finish college. Niema Jordan comes from Oakland,
California, and grew up with economic struggle. Her mother works as a
security guard and her stepfather drives a bus; neither one went past high
school. But Niema has a passion for writing, so she worked hard to get
into the journalism school at Northwestern University, outside of Chicago.
She might go back to Oakland, but she knows she will not be living in
» I embrace my life and how I was raised. It’s me, it’s where I come from,
and it has molded my outlook on so many things. But it’s not going to be
my life as an adult. I know that already. I’m destined for something better.
College is your time to discover new possibilities, meet new people,
test new ideas, develop new skills, and make new connections.The time
and energy you put into the next several years will earn you a degree,
if you work hard and keep at it. But college can also help you grow and
learn in ways you cannot yet imagine.
» In high school I saw college as something you do so that you can move on.
All you’ve got to do is get this degree—this piece of paper—and get a good
job and make some money and have a family and do great things with your
life, if you want to do. And there’s so much more. – STEPHEN
During his years at college, Stephen began thinking deeply about his
Latino identity and his values. He shaped his studies, and his future, around
his beliefs about politics and community. For him, the purpose of college
was no longer simply to rise in the world—it was to change the world.
Your background gives you extra strengths.
You may feel uncertain about where you fit in at college, especially if
most of the other students have more economic privilege.When she
arrived at Northwestern, Niema saw many contrasts between herself and
4 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
YOU ARE COLLEGE MATERIAL 7
WHAT ARE YOU TAKING WITH YOU?
As you prepare to start college, think back on some of the challenges you
have met so far. Later, you can use this list to remind you of your strengths
A personal challenge I faced:
What I did to meet it:
An academic challenge I faced:
What I did to meet it:
A financial challenge I faced:
What I did to meet it:
You can build your education—not just receive it.
Like Raja, you won’t be sitting back passively to take what others arrange
for you in the next four years.You had to push hard to get where you are.
Now you can use what you know about life to stand up for yourself,
shape your own education, and take what you need from college.
» Middle-class Americans who are college-educated have all this power. But
even though people are in college, they’re ignorant to a lot of things. They
don’t know where I’ve come from—there are people here who never heard
of Oakland, who went to public schools that were the greatest things on
earth. So why should they make choices for me? Going to college, you have
access. You can tell people what’s going on. – NIEMA
Even though Stephen grew up only a few miles from the University
of Texas, when he arrived on campus as a first-year student, it did not feel
like home to him.At first, he felt like a second-class citizen there.
» White students, with parents who came to this university, expect to be
listened to. Whether their work merits that respect or that attention, they
expect it—and generally what you expect out of life, you’re going to get.
Your circumstances are going to affect your life. Let’s not pretend like
they don’t. – STEPHEN
Then Stephen began to form connections with other Latino students.
His confidence grew as he helped organize events that brought them
together—and also educated the larger community about Latino issues.
» As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was in fact political on this campus, by
nature of my skin tone and my last name. And if you can empower a student,
we can definitely move on to bigger and better things. I want to tell new
students, “You have a voice, use it. You have a brain, use it.” There’s so much
you can learn, and if you expect people to listen to you, they will. – STEPHEN
Because you are the first in your family to go to college, many challenges lie ahead of you—personal, academic, and financial. But as you
step out into your new life, remember that you have already proved that
you can meet a challenge.The intelligence and skills that got you to college will only grow stronger as you use them.
6 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
WE CAN DO BETTER 9
WHO STANDS BEHIND YOU?
Different people—perhaps a special teacher, mentor, or friend—have
probably helped you get to this point of starting out for college.When
you arrive, those people will continue to be interested in how it goes—
and they will want to support you when you need it. Use this space to
write down contact information for the ones you really counted on, so
you can keep in touch.
8 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Facing the Hurdles
College can be a culture shock
Milenny Then grew up in a Latino neighborhood
of New York City, its busy streets in the shadow of the George
Washington Bridge. As a teenager she dreamed of leaving the city to
explore new places. But her parents, immigrants from the Dominican
Republic, wanted to keep their only daughter close to home.When she
got a scholarship to Wheaton, a small college in suburban Massachusetts,
they told her she was crazy to think of going so far away.
» IIt’s just in the culture—I’m the only girl, so they are kind of overprotective.
They wanted me to go to college, but I should stay living at home, where
they have control over what I do. But I’ve always been a rebel. – MILENNY
When she arrived at college, however, Milenny realized that she had
new bridges to cross. Coming from an urban high school with fewer than
ten white students, she was joining a largely white student body accustomed to privilege and status. She had left her alternative public high
school knowing that she could do hard work well, but after her first few
weeks of class, her confidence was shaken.
» IIt was really hard for me at first. I never cried because I was homesick in
college—the only reason I cried was because I felt dumb. One night I called
my cousin and I was like, “I feel so stupid, I shouldn’t be here.” – MILENNY
Milenny got through that period partly because she decided she would
prove that she could. She relied on the qualities that had brought her this
far already—self-reliance, and an openness to new experiences.When
she felt discouraged, she followed her instinct that things would get better
» IIf you think about it too much, you really won’t do it, because all those
“ifs” get in the way of what you really want to do. – MILENNY
10 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
FACING THE HURDLES 13
and Aileen could not arrive back at the bus station in New Jersey until
after midnight. Her parents put their foot down.
» I really did like the school, I enjoyed everything about going there. But
they worried that something would happen to me—that’s why they moved
out of New York in the first place. They said, “You’re not going back, pick
another college.” I was seventeen, so I had to do what they told me to.
I didn’t have time to pick another college, so I just went to the community
college, where the only thing I had to do was register for classes. I figure
I’ll do my bachelors here, in New Jersey, and then after that I can just go
for my masters over there. – AILEEN
Two years later, Aileen did graduate from community college, and
transferred to the nearby state college.When she finishes there, she still
intends to go back to John Jay—this time, for her advanced degree.
Not just family members but also friends who do not go on to college
may feel left behind. Hazel Jansen started taking community college
classes while she was still finishing high school in Denver. Her boyfriend
objected when she no longer had time for him.
» He would get mad when I told him, “No, I can’t drive over to see you
tonight, I’m really tired and I have to get up early in the morning for
school.” – HAZEL
Before, people might have depended on you to fill a need for them—
whether it was the money you earned, the help you gave, or just the
pleasure of your company. Now those important contributions may have
to change, if you are to use your time in college to the best.
You can acknowledge the different feelings that everyone is having,
and recognize that you will miss each other. But you don’t need to take
any blame for going on to college.
By getting your college degree, you do something good for yourself—and you also contribute to your family and community. In his first
year at Wake Forest University, for example, Eric began to study sociology.
Instead of worrying about the distance between him and his mother, he
was already imagining the ways he could work to change his old neighborhood for the better.
Many first-generation college students face the hurdles Milenny did,
during the first few months of college.They feel the tensions of leaving
home for new territory, and their parents cannot reassure them.The people
at college seem like a club of insiders, to which they do not belong.
As they describe those initial feelings in the pages that follow, remember that all of these students made it past that first stage—and so will you.
Expect tensions at home as you begin your college years.
All through his high school years, Eric’s mother had stuck by him in his
efforts to get to college. But in the last few weeks before he left, it seemed
that she and Eric were always arguing about something.When his departure day came, she sat in her car with her arms crossed. His other family
members did not come to see him off.
» ILike she didn’t think the day was coming. I was mad, at her and at the
others — they could have at least said goodbye. – ERIC
Thinking back on their quarrels, Eric realized how hard it was for his
mother to let him leave home.
» I kept saying, “Hey, in three weeks you don’t have to deal with me, in two
weeks I’m going to be gone, I’m leaving in a week!” And the last time I said
it, she’s like, “Have you ever realized that maybe I need you here?” I was
like, “Whoa, why would you want me to be here, where I would be a burden
to you?” – eric
Not everyone moves away from home to go to college, as Eric and
Milenny did. But whether you go across the country or across town, it’s
normal to feel tensions with the people who will not take part in your
new life.They are happy for you, but at the same time, they know that you
are going somewhere outside their own world.They may not be able to
put that feeling into words, but it can threaten their sense of well-being
and their desire to protect you.
Aileen’s parents knew she wanted a law career, and they were proud
when she got into the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.The summer
before she started, she took evening classes there to prepare her for college
writing. But the college was an hour’s bus ride away in New York City,
12 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
FACING THE HURDLES 15
During her first months at Northwestern University in the Chicago
suburb of Evanston, Niema had a hard time with its suburban setting.
It made a sharp contrast with Oakland, California, where she grew up.
» I was trying to understand how these people could have such perfect lives,
like out of the suburbs, and people in Oakland could be struggling the way
they were. – NIEMA
When she went out with friends to formal dances on campus, she felt
out of place.
» I can’t call my mom and ask her necessarily what to wear. She’s never been
to those type of events, she’s like, “What are you talking about?” – NIEMA
But as Niema got off campus more, she discovered that this college
town had more than one side to it.
» Evanston is one of those places that’s really split up. It has poverty, there’s
students who are struggling. You get this off-kilter idea of it, because you
don’t necessarily have to leave the campus if you don’t want to. – NIEMA
Exploring the edges of Evanston helped Niema feel less alienated. Just
as important, she began to see that her first impressions would not always
reveal the whole story about a place—or about a person, either.
Milenny, too, saw that her first assumptions did not always hold true.
When she later became a residential adviser in a dormitory, she grew more
attuned to the complexity of her college community.
» I learned not to assume, because I had to deal with so many people.
Even just making a bulletin board, I couldn’t assume that everyone was
a certain religion or a certain race. How to interact with people became
very important. – MILENNY
Stick it out, and keep connecting with people.
In the sea of faces that met her during the first weeks at college, Milenny
didn’t understand why a particular staff member approached her and
suggested they meet to talk.
Arriving at college can be a culture shock.
You might be headed for a community college around the corner, where
many other students share your background. But if you go to a state or
private university, your fellow students may not seem to have much in
common with you. Jackie Comminello worried about this when she started
at Colorado University in Denver.
» I was so nervous going in there, because all these white people were dressed
nice and I could tell they had money, they probably went to really good schools,
and I knew it. I was like, Wow, these people are really smart and here I am
coming from North High School. So I was intimidated, I felt like I wasn’t going
to do good. But I decided to stick it out, just go against the odds. – JACKIE
Eric felt similar worries when he first arrived at Wake Forest University,
a selective private college in North Carolina. Students were driving up in
expensive cars packed with stuff to outfit their dorm rooms.The clothes
they wore looked nothing like his. From the minute he opened his mouth,
Eric realized that he spoke differently.
» When I first came, I used a lot of slang. But some of the stuff that I can say
and do at home—like “Yo, what’s up, pimp?”—I can’t do it here. They just
looked at me real funny, like, “What did you just call me?!” So I’ve calmed
down a lot of my street slang: You can’t say this, watch how you say that.
Because that’s too much of a culture shock for them. – ERIC
Eric had discovered that he actually knew two languages, which
would be an asset to him as he moved through his different communities.
He didn’t have to give up his neighborhood style, but he could choose the
times he wanted to use it and when he would speak more formal English.
When Mike left Mississippi for Brigham Young University, he found
himself in a conservative Utah setting.The college rules frowned upon the
kind of social life he used to enjoy in his rural African-American neighborhood. People even raised their eyebrows at the way he looked.
» I have tattoos on my shoulders—one that says “love family” in Chinese
writing, one of a football, and my initial. And people around here don’t
believe in that. – MIKE
14 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
PEOPLE TO GO TO FOR HELP 17
PEOPLE TO GO TO FOR HELP
On this list, keep the names and contact information for college officials
who can help you with the “business end” of your college years. Not
every college has the same offices, so the ones here are just examples and
you can revise or add to them. Keep the list in a convenient place so you
can use it when you need to troubleshoot problems.
» I said okay, but I didn’t know why, at first. But she just really wanted to
help advise me—help me pick my classes, know who to talk to if I had a
problem. She was just trying to guide me through. – MILENNY
Milenny began to realize that help like this could get her through the
culture shock, the academic stress, and the uncomfortable new environment.
» If I could get help from twenty people I would go see the twenty people! I
think that’s what made me different. – MILENNY
In the chapters that follow, you will hear other students describe in
more detail how they managed to go after their college education while
staying true to themselves.Your first challenge now is to get your feet on
the ground and point yourself in the right direction.
16 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Dean of students
Office to address
IT’S YOUR TIME 19
It’s Your Time
Take charge of your academic choices
Raja Fattah grew up in a rough section of Cleveland,
Ohio, where “you can get into some major trouble within a
couple hours,” he says. His Palestinian parents are immigrants, and his
brown skin made him an easy target for the Cleveland police to stop for
no reason.The vocational high school he attended did not challenge him
much, and few of its students went on to college. But Raja and three
friends decided they would all apply to Kent State University, an hour’s
drive away.They stuck together for support on Kent’s enormous campus
with its 30,000 students.
Raja’s father wanted him to study business in college, but his first few
courses in that field did not interest him. His criminal justice class, on the
other hand, began to answer a lot of the questions he used to have when
harassed by the cops.
» If I’m going to college for four years, I want to be interested for the time
I’m there. I want to learn things that I haven’t ever been introduced to
before. I stuck with justice studies, so I would never get bored. – RAJA
Raja recognized that college presented him with a chance that might
come only once in a lifetime. For four years, he could explore, ask questions,
and think hard about what mattered to him. Even more than high grades,
he went after the goal of opening and sharpening his mind.Whatever
career he chose, he would graduate with the skills to take on all kinds of
As a first-generation student, college is your time to find yourself in
your learning. In the following pages, Raja and others tell how they did that.
IT’S YOUR TIME 21
in classes that demanded more fluency in his new language.
On the other hand, you may find that you are more advanced than
others in certain subjects.
» I didn’t speak formal Arabic, I spoke colloquial Arabic. So when I got to
college, I took a couple Arabic language classes, and I’m still taking them.
And it’s expanded my whole language in Arabic, so more people from the
Arab world can understand me, no matter where they’re from. – RAJA
Look for courses where the teaching style meets your needs.
Raja needed more of his classes to draw him in and motivate him somehow, as his language classes did. In his first two years, he had several
disappointing experiences in large impersonal lecture courses.
» I got bored with the whole experience. I’ve had intro classes with 800,
900 people. The professors are not going to remember my face, they’re
not going to remember my name, and my grades dropped because of that.
When I finally got into my major, my grades started picking up. The classes
become smaller, and a teacher will notice you if you come or not. Teachers
start opening up to you, they tell you about their experiences. – RAJA
Your college courses will expose you to many different teaching
styles.You won’t always get a choice—for example, most majors require
at least one large introductory lecture course. But you can balance out
your course load so that you are always taking something that works well
for you. Here are some of the possibilities:
• A very large lecture where the professor delivers information and
students take notes, with no time allowed for questions
• A “section meeting,” where a teaching assistant works with a
smaller group of students who are enrolled in a large lecture class
• A smaller lecture, where the professor mostly talks but also asks and
answers some questions of students
• A laboratory where students work in small groups to conduct
scientific investigations, with the professor or teaching assistant acting as
Choose courses that match your level and move you forward.
As you decide which courses to take first, try to accurately and honestly
assess your current skills. During the four years ahead, you will get the
chance to take thirty or forty courses. It’s worth your time now to build a
really solid foundation, so you’ll be ready for all the new interests you’ll
want to study later.
Raja took a hard look at his high school preparation as soon as he got
» I didn’t really learn anything from high school. When I entered college,
I just basically started from scratch. In Cleveland public schools, you
probably learn more about street smarts than book smarts. It was fun and
I was second in my class. But I would say we were cheated out of a good
education at that school. – RAJA
Karen Powless started at a state university in Oklahoma, many years
after she graduated from high school and became a mother.Taking remedial
classes gave her more confidence about joining the academic scene.
» I went in there with the idea, “I had so many years out, and I know I’m
rusty, math and English is not my best thing. But if I want to be a successful student, I’m going to have to brush up. Maybe I’ll learn something I’ve
never learned before.” There has to be a little bit of humbleness there,
because we’re not all study-minded. So I didn’t feel bad taking basic math
or Comp 1. You hold your head up, because at least you’re doing it! – KAREN
Naixing Lei came to San Francisco at sixteen from China, speaking no
English. He graduated from high school and enrolled in community college
classes, but he knew his limited English would make his progress more difficult. So he shopped around for the classes best suited for students like him.
» On the very first day I go to the class, I sit there and take a look at my
surroundings. If I find that every student looks like American-born, I know
maybe this class is going to be heavy, difficult, because they all speak
English. I pick another course instead. – NAIXING
During his first year, Naixing found a writing course tailored for
English language learners. Later he grew more comfortable participating
20 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
IT’S YOUR TIME 23
» Basically, it’s word of mouth: “Who did you take for government, who’s
good for Comp 2?” Otherwise the counselors just put you in a class with
a schedule that fits. – KAREN
Because he was still learning English, Naixing looked for teachers who
spoke clearly and were willing to explain things that he did not understand.
When he found them, his language skills improved and so did his grades.
» Sometimes the teacher is just talking to talk, and is not willing to answer
your questions. Or they talk really quickly, and when they write something
on the board it’s messy, hard to see. The primary reason that helped me
gain an A was a teacher who explained everything very patiently and with
details, so I can understand and absorb the lecture very easily. – NAIXING
The first week of class is a great time to “shop” for teachers that inspire
you. If they don’t, move quickly to replace that class with a better fit. Don’t
worry about offending the professor by doing so; it happens all the time.
» You can drop the class. You don’t have to take that teacher, you can take
the class with somebody else. – RAJA
Eric found out too late that the teaching style of his math professor
did not work well for him. He had done well in high school math, but in
his first semester at Wake Forest University, he got an F in his course in
probability and statistics.
» I thought I had lost my math gene! So I went to talk to a friend of mine and
he gave me all the direction that I needed. He told me, “This a hard school,
but it’s not about what class you take, it’s about who you take.” He also
told me that if you fail a course, you can retake it the next semester and
take the better grade. The next semester, I took the same math with
another teacher, and I got a C. – ERIC
On the other hand, if you stick it out with a teacher, you may be glad
that you did. Debra felt humiliated when a teacher criticized her first paper
in public. But she swallowed her pride, went for help, and gave herself
time to find out what else the class might hold. By the end of the course,
she was earning top grades.
• A discussion seminar, where up to twenty students discuss the
assigned reading or writing with each other and the professor
In addition, different college teachers will use different methods to
see how much you have learned and decide what grade you will get.
• Several tests and a final exam using short-answer and multiplechoice questions
• Tests that require written answers of a paragraph or more, and a
final exam that asks for one or more short essays
• Several shorter papers and one long final paper instead of a final exam
• A final project (perhaps culminating in writing a paper, giving an
oral presentation, or building a website)
• A take-home or open-book final exam
Sometimes several different teachers will be teaching the same course
at different days or times. It’s worth trying to get one whose approach
matches the way in which you work best.
Network with others to find the best teachers.
At the University of Colorado in Denver, Jackie tended to get very anxious
when she took tests, even if she knew the material. Also, she was very
concerned about her grade point average, because she wanted to get into a
selective dental studies program. So she asked other students to suggest
professors whose approach would help her with those concerns.
» Some of my professors would give us extra credit questions on our exams.
That not only helped to relieve my test-taking stress, but also gave some
leeway for my grade. And I look for professors who give homework and exams
throughout the course. That way, you’re studying a smaller amount of material
at a time, instead of cramming nine chapters into one huge exam. – JACKIE
Karen also networked with other students at Oklahoma State to get
their recommendations for good teachers.
22 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
IT’S YOUR TIME 25
When she was eighteen years old, Debra flunked out during her first
semester at the Community College of Denver, because she thought “it
was all about having fun.” Six years later, she went back, because she
wanted a better job to support her children. But her motivation wasn’t
» I also wanted to know things. I didn’t want to know just the little box I lived
in. I wanted to know what happens outside, how things work, things that
were important to me and my community. I wanted to know how the political
system works in my community, even to build my vocabulary so that I can
write a grant. So it started out with me needing to improve my education,
but now that I’ve experienced it, I love it. I feel so much more empowered
with the knowledge I’ve gained. – DEBRA
First-generation students, especially, may feel pressure from home
to choose courses that suit their families’ expectations about the purpose
» When I went to college, my family was like “What are you going to study,
what are you going to do when you graduate?” And later I realized it doesn’t
really matter that you decide before you go. Just go, and take different
subjects to see what you like. Because a high school class in history is very
different from the way it is in college. – MILENNY
Maly Fung’s mother, a Chinese immigrant, wanted at least one of her
three children to become a doctor or a lawyer in America. But Maly
decided to major in international affairs.
» I still don’t know how to say “international affairs” in Chinese. I say, “You
know, Mom, it’s government, it’s history, it’s economics.” She says, “Oooh,
economics! Good, good!” She is never discouraging, but she always says,
“What are you going to do with that?” – MALY
Raja just didn’t care that much about what he was learning in his business classes. He decided that if he studied a field that had more attraction
for him, he could always use what he learned to go into business later.
» You’ll be surprised at the end of the semester to see that you didn’t just
learn how to write, you didn’t just learn chapter one in your psychology
book, but that you learned so many other things from your peers, from the
instructors, that are outside what’s in that textbook. – DEBRA
Go for courses that you want to take, even if they take you in
Naixing went to City College of San Francisco hoping to transfer to a
four-year college and go on for a career in business. He signed up for
classes like math, which could help him achieve those goals. But he
decided to take other courses, like art, just because they would take him
in interesting new directions. His favorite course, Asian-American Studies,
connected to both his personal history and his future.
» To understand better the current Asian-American community, I need to
study their past. I felt deeply interested in their struggles and their story.
It was a lecture course and every Friday we watched a movie about their
past. We saw how not just Chinese but Japanese and Koreans came here
— their obstacles, their different roles from the 1840s to the present.
There are many misunderstandings and conflicts between people from the
East and the West because they only have limited knowledge about the
other group’s culture and tradition. – NAIXING
Having a strong interest in a subject makes it much more likely that
you will do well in a course, even if it is hard. Eric had always loved to
read and write, but after his placement test, the college placed him in a
first-semester class that would provide extra support in those skills. He
began earning good grades in it, and so he cautiously asked his professor
if she thought he could handle two writing-intensive seminars at once
during the next semester.
» And she looked at me really funny, and she’s like, “I think you would be awesome.” I’m like, “Will you write me a letter of recommendation?” She’s like,
“Honey, I will do better than that, I will go talk to the people myself.” – ERIC
24 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
MY COURSE SELECTION WORKSHEET 27
MY COURSE SELECTION WORKSHEET
As you look through the course catalog and talk to friends and advisers,
use the worksheets below to organize the classes you select each term.
(You can copy the blank form and keep using it throughout your time
What courses I might take during Term Year
What courses I might take during Term Year
» You either buy something or you sell something, that’s how business always
goes. In my first two intro classes, I got an A and a B and I didn’t even try.
But it felt like just something to go to, like all my other classes. – RAJA
Remember that this is your time to explore.
As soon as Raja began to follow his own interests in choosing courses, he
enjoyed his studies more.
» Some teachers require you to go find readings in scholarly journals, and I had
never heard of scholarly journals coming out of high school. You find articles
on things I never even knew existed, everything from death penalty issues,
discrimination laws, all types of things. It really expands your horizons. –RAJA
At the same time, he felt his academic muscles getting stronger with
» I challenge myself—I take upper division classes when I don’t even have to,
just to get a higher learning experience. – RAJA
Rena Priest didn’t know what she wanted to do when she first started
at Northwest Indian College, on the Lummi reservation where she grew
up. But she had loved working on her high school plays, so she tried
majoring in theatre.
» I spent my whole first year just grinding away, not feeling like I was getting
anywhere with it. Then I took an English class, and it was just a perfect fit,
it was like finding a groove and then clicking in it. That’s all you really can
do—just go and try, and keep trying, keep trying. You’re accomplishing
something the whole time, even if it doesn’t seem like it. – RENA
Your college education can be all about developing yourself in the
ways that Raja and Rena describe. As you pick up new skills and content
knowledge, you will also be learning new things about yourself. Remember, this is your time to grow and change.
In the next chapter, students will tell how the relationships they
formed during their college years made a difference to that growth and
learning, and helped them on their way.
26 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Because I need extra
help in this area
college requires it
Because my major
Because I am
interested, even though
it’s not required
Because I need extra
help in this area
college requires it
Because my major
Because I am
interested, even though
it’s not required
MY PATHWAY THROUGH COLLEGE 29
Graduate school required for this career (if any):
Sources of financial support (fellowships, etc.):
People to consult about this:
Questions I have about this pathway:
MY PATHWAY THROUGH COLLEGE
As you think about what you should study and what your future might
hold, it sometimes helps to “plan backward” from a career you think
might interest you.You can copy this worksheet and use it to try out lots
of different possibilities. Start by filling in a career you can imagine yourself in.Then sketch out the courses, major field, summer experiences,
scholarships or fellowships, and people that could support you in that
direction. If you don’t know the answers, take this sheet to the college’s
career services office, to somebody who teaches in a related academic
department, or both.They can help you design a pathway that will make
the most of your time in college.
Possible major(s) that could lead to this career:
Possible related courses:
Possible things to do in summer to prepare for this goal:
28 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
ENLARGING YOUR CIRCLE 31
Enlarging Your Circle
Make relationships that help you do well
John Berry grew up in a small Indiana town, where
almost nobody went on to college. He graduated from high school
surrounded by farms and fields, and by other people who planned to stay
in town and work as their parents did. John held down factory and maintenance jobs for a while, but soon he got bored and restless. He decided
to go after a future in which he could use his mind as well as his hands.
When John enrolled at Indiana University–Purdue University in Fort
Wayne, he knew he needed plenty of help to earn his degree in history.
His high school education had not prepared him for the difficult reading,
writing, and math that college required. But he had learned in the work
world that good relationships with others could make all the difference in
his advancement. John drew upon his outgoing nature to talk to the people
he met, build relationships, and get a lot of advice and feedback—enough
to launch him to a whole new level of learning.
» That’s what I’ve really developed here, is a social network. Through student
government, I sat on committees with top administrators. When you get
to know people in the upper level administration beyond their title, there’s
a lot you have a lot in common. The vice chancellor and I share the same
drive to see minority students succeed. She told me, “If you ever need
anything, my door is open.” – JOHN
By his senior year, John had such good grades that he could plan to
go on for a Ph.D. in history. And he also had great references from the
people who had come to know him well—professors, college administrators, and student leaders with whom he had worked closely. In this chapter, students tell how they reached out to others, forming a social network
that mattered both personally and academically. If you enlarge your circle
as they suggest, those friends and connections can have an impact not
just during college, but for the rest of your life.
ENLARGING YOUR CIRCLE 33
Debra also went knocking from door to door, until she found the
right advisers for the questions she had.
» Often it’s the third or fourth person that gives you the help you are looking
for, and they will appreciate all of the effort you went through to find them.
And not asking can sometimes have hard consequences. You may be one
or two years into school thinking you know what you are doing, only to find
that you’re on the wrong track, you’re in the wrong degree program, you
could have finished a lot sooner if you’d done the same thing in a different
track. Don’t put your future in someone else’s hands. – DEBRA
Build relationships with professors.
College offers you a wonderful opportunity to have conversations about
ideas with professors who have gone deeply into their particular field.
If you leave it to chance, however, it may not happen. Stephanie Serda’s
sociology course took place in a big lecture hall at Bowling Green State
University, and the professor couldn’t possibly know the names of most
students. But Stephanie and her friends would sometimes see him sitting
by himself in the student union, and one day they decided to say hello.
» We went over and talked to him, and it was pretty cool just meeting and
getting to know the professor. Because obviously sociology is something
that’s not technical—you can just talk about people, you know. We went
back and talked to him a couple other times in the semester. He definitely
liked it, and now he knew our names too. – stephanie
Stephanie has realized one of the great advantages of getting to know
your professors: they can give you new insights into the subjects the class
is about. Nowhere else in their lives do most people have the chance to
explore ideas in dialogue with people who have made learning their life’s
You might even develop a new academic interest just because you find
a professor who is passionate about the subject. Milenny decided on a
whim to learn Italian, after she watched “The Godfather” on TV. From the
first class she took, her Italian professors inspired and encouraged her.
Start with your faculty adviser (and change if it’s not a good
Your college will assign you a faculty or staff adviser, who is supposed
to help you choose the right courses for your level, your hopes, and your
expectations. Contact that person right from the start, and make regular
appointments to check in together.
» My college adviser helped students in so many ways, whether it was about
having trouble adapting to college life or about filling out a form. She
would always be there to listen and help. Mentoring, explaining to students
what to expect next, how to navigate through campus life. That’s what a
good adviser does, gives lots of support. So seeking out those people,
wherever you are going to school, that’s really key, and then being willing
to take their help and their suggestions. – RENA
Let your adviser know where you’re coming from academically.When
Aileen started community college in New Jersey, her counselor helped
figure out how to fill in the gaps in her high school education.
» He saw that I was really doing something with my life, so he helped me set
up my schedules in order to graduate in a certain time. Some people stay
in community college three or four years, because they don’t know what
they have to do. But I was determined that I wanted to spend no more than
two years in that college. When my counselor found out I was bilingual, he
had me take the CLEP exam in Spanish. I got a high score, and that gave
me twelve more credits toward my degree. – AILEEN
If you aren’t getting the help you need from your adviser, you can
switch to someone else. Jackie Comminello began college at a four-year
state university, but she found the most understanding counselors when
she took her placement tests at the community college next door.
» For dentistry, you have to do high levels of chemistry, physics, biology—and
I had never had any of these subjects in high school, so it was all new to me.
At the community college, they found out more about the students, their background, what type of classes they’ve had to prepare them. So I went into a
smaller biology class there, which was a lot easier for me to learn in. – JACKIE
32 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
ENLARGING YOUR CIRCLE 35
Go to every class.
First-generation students who succeed in college say that one key move—
going to all their classes—gives them a huge advantage. And if they don’t,
their grades suffer.
» It really is kind of a domino effect: If you don’t go to class you’re going to
do bad in one class. If you’re trying to catch up in that, you end up doing
bad in the next class. If you’re taking five classes, they’re all going to roll
over, and you’ll end up getting maybe one A or a B in one of those classes,
and you’re getting Cs and maybe Ds in the others. – RAJA
» Everyone else is skipping class, it’s like, “Oh, might as well.” And my mom’s
not saying, “It’s time to get up for school.” But if you don’t go to class, you
can’t get good grades. For me it was a learning experience, to not do good
that semester. – STEPHANIE
Aileen has made getting to class a rule she never breaks, even if she
feels like sleeping late.
» I don’t miss a class just to be home or hang out with somebody. I don’t miss
a class unless it’s an emergency. Even when I’m like, “Oh, I’m so tired,”
I just get up and go to school. Just get it over with, every single day. You
really have to have a determination, ’cause if you don’t have that, what
else is going to push you to do it? – AILEEN
Some students think they shouldn’t go to class if they haven’t done all
the reading—that they might embarrass themselves if called on in class.
(We’ll discuss how to handle a heavy reading load in Chapter 6.) But it’s
not true. Even if you can’t get through all the reading, you can pick up
important knowledge by paying attention in class—and have stimulating
discussions. Being in class helps you identify your questions and gives you
important time to think about the material.
» You have to be in that class, because you lose so much if you miss lectures.
Sure, maybe you can get the notes from a student, but you’re not hearing
the lecture firsthand. You miss the opportunity to ask questions. – KAREN
» There are a lot of similarities between Italian culture and my Dominican
culture, and that was interesting to me. And the language was so beautiful.
So I just stuck with it, and that’s what I learned the most in. My professors
encouraged me to do internships to practice my Italian, and they always
tried to help me when they saw me struggling with my essays. It’s the one
class that when I do work for it, I don’t feel like I’m doing work. I love it.
When she tried her first class in Italian, Milenny never imagined that
she would end up double-majoring in the language, spending a semester
in Italy, and thinking of being an Italian teacher herself.With every new
class in the subject that she took, her world grew larger.
Relationships with professors can also turn into important friendships.
You could discover a similar background or a shared interest, for example.
Or your teacher might simply appreciate your commitment to learning,
and reach out to you on a personal level.
» I didn’t learn about the Holocaust until sophomore year in college. So I’m
sitting in the class and I’m reading about the Holocaust, and just digesting
all this literature. It’s not easy to do. After class I went to my mentor —
she was a Christian who converted to Judaism. I broke down crying: “How
could this happen, I don’t understand, and it was so recently. . . ” She was
there for me, she sat down with me, we ended up talking for an hour. That
kind of relationship, it’s hard to find, but it’s wonderful to have. – MALY
» I had a human anthropology class my second year, and I lost my textbook.
So I went to ask the professor if she had any extra material that I can read
from while I buy another textbook. And she gave me her textbook! I knew
from there that she wanted me to learn. – RAJA
How do you get to the point where a professor knows who you are
and cares about your progress? In the following sections, students spell
out the steps they took to get those important relationships under way.
34 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
STAND UP FOR YOUR EDUCATION 37
» I always prepare a list of questions and practice them ahead of time. Then,
after I get used to it, I go to find the teacher. One time, I was so nervous
I couldn’t speak. I just asked half the questions, and left the other half
aside. – NAIXING
Debra, too, gained confidence by writing down her questions before
she went to her professors.
» It’s refreshing to an instructor, in my experience, to have a student that
cares about what they are there to learn. You show your professor that you
are invested, instead of showing up one week before the end of the semester.
If you get to a roadblock, you’ve got to ask for help. Don’t be ashamed of it.
How are you going to be smarter if you don’t ask? So keep asking.
You might be surprised at how many of your teachers do care about
your progress. Rena got a lot of support from professors who were committed to the education of Native American students.
» I had so many people at the university that wanted to help me, that wanted
me to succeed, and through my success they had some personal success.
That’s how it works. – RENA
If you have to miss a class, email the professor.
If you must miss a class, your professors will expect you to let them
knowin advance, either in person or by email.Tell the truth about why
you could not come to class and, if necessary, ask how you can make
Professors consider the way that you communicate with them a
sign of your respect. If you take the same casual tone that you would in
an instant message or an email to a friend, they react quite negatively.
They are much more likely to take an interest in you if your email
messages have a more professional tone, using correct English, spelling,
and grammar. For example:
» To get that A, you have to be in class every day, you have to participate
in the discussions, you have to take it seriously, find out what you want
to get out of it before the class starts. Anyone can do it. But it’s not high
school. You are paying for these classes. Show up. Everything you miss,
you’re going to need. – DEBRA
Visit your professors during their office hours.
A good way to build relationships is to go see professors during their
» That’s probably the best way that you can let a teacher know that you
want to learn and you’re in class. If you have any real valid questions, ask
a question. Some teachers honestly don’t want to be bothered, but some
love when you come to their office hours. They’re sitting in their office for
an hour, and sometimes no students show up. And they kind of get bored,
and they figure everybody’s learning. But that’s never the case. – RAJA
Many students have trouble approaching their professors for help.
The gap between professor and student somehow feels too great to
bridge. But you’re not the only one who doesn’t understand everything
covered in class.
» I just feel a little intimidated, like it’s going to feel really weird to approach
them. Maybe I’ll ask a question that they’ll think is ridiculous. If I’m going
about something that is really complicated to me, I don’t want them to
think, “Well, maybe she’s not right for this class.” – JACKIE
» A lot of times people don’t like to raise their hand and ask a question in
class. But actually, a lot of people think, “What did he mean?” It’s really
helpful to take advantage of office hours. I’ll just go ask it, because I want
to know! – STEPHANIE
Naixing worried that he would forget his questions or not know the
words to explain himself in English. So before asking a teacher for help,
he readied himself.
36 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
ENLARGING YOUR CIRCLE 39
» I needed to learn how to organize myself, to manage my time better and to
improve my study skills. I got phone numbers of people I met in classes, and
I would call and talk to them: “Oh, how do you do this, how do you study?”
Then I would try different things until I found what was best for me. At first
it was a struggle, but then I started getting the hang of it. – JACKIE
» Some students have the advantage—they went to private schools and they
know how to write good papers. So I got in the habit of emailing people my
papers, like, “Would you read over this and make sure that it sounds parallel,
that everything is formed the way it should be?” – ERIC
At first, John says, his pride kept him from asking other students for
help. But he was holding down a part-time job, and he often could not get
to the professor’s office hours.To go after his education, he had to take the
» It was just a matter of getting help when I needed help—not saying, “Oh,
I can do this on my own.” Math is probably my weakest subject, so I had
to find somebody in my class that I knew was grasping the concepts, and
would be willing to come in at six or seven at night and help me out. – JOHN
Debra has taken the lead in organizing students in her classes to get
together and study.
» The first day of classes, I pass around my notebook and ask my classmates
for their name, phone number, and email. And if I get to a place where I’m
not sure, I’ll send out a mass email before a big test and ask, “Does anyone
want to get together a study group?” You’d be surprised how many other
students are feeling the same way, and welcome the chance to get
together to study. – DEBRA
Take advantage of alumni networks.
You can also make important relationships with people who graduated
from your college, and are now making their way in the world. If you are
seeking career advice, for example, or if you move to an unfamiliar city
after graduating, alumni will often be ready to help, even if it has been
many years since they graduated.
Dear Professor Cervone,
I’m writing to let you know that I have to miss class next Thursday
due to a surgery I have had scheduled for several months in advance.
I’ve tried to reschedule but was not able to. I will be sure to get the
notes from a classmate.Thank you for understanding, and I’ll see you
on Thursday in two weeks. – Abe Young
When you’ve done well in a class, ask the professor for a
If you have done well in a class, do not hesitate to ask the teacher to write
you a general letter of recommendation for the file kept by your college’s
career services office. Later, when you are applying for graduate school or
employment, that office will supply them to the right place upon request.
The very best time to ask for a recommendation is right after a course
ends, when the professor will best remember your strong points.
When you let them know you care about their field, professors also
take a special interest in how you are doing later. Once John Berry decided
he wanted to major in history and later go on to graduate school, he made
every effort to get to know the professors in that department on a friendly
basis. He knew that if he did, their future recommendations would be
more meaningful and insightful.
» I set up appointments with the faculty in that department to get to know
them. I talked to my professors before and after class. They are people too,
just like you! And college is about meeting people that can help you in the
future. – JOHN
It’s all right to remind a professor if you have requested a recommendation and it has not been sent. Most important, write a personal note of
thanks after a professor has taken the time to supply one.
Ask other students for help.
Many first-generation college students notice that their classmates are
much better prepared for demanding college work than they are. As you
make connections with other students in and out of class, you can also
call on them for help, feedback, and advice.
38 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
BUILDING MY NETWORK 41
BUILDING MY NETWORK
Wherever you go in college, you will meet and get to know people who
will be important in your life.These relationships will grow and build
into a network that can support you personally and professionally.You can
copy this worksheet to keep a record of their names, how you met, what
you have in common, and any questions you might want to follow up on.
» I’m going to L.A., I don’t know anybody in L.A.—go to the alumni center
and there’s somebody from Northwestern in L.A., let me call them! That’s
how networking happens. Your college name has to do with everything,
because they’ve been to the same school as you! There’s tradition you can
build off—maybe they’ve even had some of the same professors. – NIEMA
The career services office or the alumni relations office can help you
find out the right alumni to contact for the particular need you might
have. And once you graduate, you can join an email group that keeps you
connected with others who graduated around the same time.
College is all about the people.
Even though your classes will teach you so much, the learning you do
in college will often not take place in class. It will happen in your human
encounters with people—whether they are other students, professors,
administrators, advisers, or alumni. Every time you reach out to someone—to ask a question, to explore an idea, to explain something, to offer
advice—you are deepening your college education.
For Rena, those interactions have given her “tools on how to live and
ways to look at the world” that fit right in with her Native American
beliefs and values.
» Education really alters you—you have all of these opportunities and
experiences to look at the world in new ways and see things through other
people’s eyes. The best we can do as human beings is in sharing what we
know, our knowledge of the world and experiences, just teaching one
another, always reaching towards enlightenment of something, learning
something you didn’t know yesterday or ten minutes ago, and having a rich
human interaction through experiences with other people. The idea that
we are really all here to help each other, that’s what guides me. – RENA
40 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Where/how we met
What we had
Field of work
Email or website
Where/how we met
What we had
Field of work
Email or website
PROFESSORS TO STAY IN TOUCH WITH 43
PROFESSORS TO STAY IN TOUCH WITH
Even after you finish a course, stay in contact with any professor you had a
good connection with. Later, they might help you with your post-college
planning (such as internships, graduate school, or work opportunities).
You may also need to ask them for written recommendations in the
future. Use this worksheet to keep track of their names and contact information, and add to your list every term.
In the “Notes” column, write down anything you particularly liked or
remember about this professor or course—a paper you wrote, a discussion you
had, and so on. This helps you reconnect with the professor if time goes by
before you are in contact again.
42 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Term and year
Course you took
Term and year
Course you took
Term and year
Course you took
Term and year
Course you took
Term and year
Course you took
The Hours of Your Day
How to manage your time and resources
During her first year at college, Stephanie Serda lived at
home with her mother, her two younger brothers, and their
grandfather, a short drive from the Ohio state university she attends. It
was a tough year. Her parents were in the middle of a divorce, and
Stephanie felt the stress of staying loyal to both of them, while also helping her younger brothers deal with their feelings. She worked a part-time
job to earn spending money, but she also worried about keeping up with
her studies in the middle of her large extended family.
» I had my own room, and I would close my door a lot. During the week, when
it was just the family there, it was like, “She’s in college, you have to be
quiet.” But on the weekends, I still have to study. And since my grandpa
lives with my mom, a lot of my aunts and uncles and cousins come over a
lot, so you can’t get work done. – STEPHANIE
Stephanie’s strategies paid off, and she finished her first year with very
good grades. But by living at home, she felt as if she was missing out on
the college social scene. For her sophomore year, she moved into a dorm
on campus, and right away she found herself swept up in new friendships
» That semester I got the worst grades in my whole history at school. I
skipped classes too, like, “Oh, I need to sleep in.” I joined more groups, and
I didn’t manage my time as well as far as studying. And I barely read at all.
For her third year, Stephanie moved into an apartment near the campus, sharing it with a cousin. She paid her rent and food expenses with
money saved from her summer job, but she soon found herself running
low. Rather than taking a job that would cut back on her time to study,
she decided to move back home, this time to her father’s house.
44 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
THE HOURS OF YOUR DAY 47
kitchen table. There were a lot of people in and out—sometimes they
brought their friends and partied, and played cards, and it did get hard.
I told them, “I’m not trying to be rude, but if I want to do good in school
I need some peace and quiet.” And they looked at me like, “I don’t understand why you have to be that way.” – JACKIE
Sharing space with other students—in a dormitory, a fraternity or
sorority, or an apartment—you may have many of the same issues.
» You learn how to deal with people, you learn how to communicate when you
have a very small space to share with somebody. And if you happen to have
somebody that’s completely opposite from you it’s a living hell. Colleges
usually don’t do a good job matching you with the right person, and you
have to sacrifice a lot, if you’re very picky about your personal space.
If other students have created a party atmosphere that makes it hard
to study, it can feel uncomfortable to say so. Maly’s freshman-year roommate used their room as a gathering place, which led to problems they
» We were listening to different types of music, she was very outgoing, and
she was already a step ahead of me. So I was still trying to make the room
my little sacred place, and she was making it her party place! So we definitely had a clash in there. We tried to deal with that, we tried to communicate, we tried to work things out—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For us, it was better to stay friends but live separately. So I moved to
a different room. – MALY
Having to commute a long distance to college also puts a strain on
your time and resources. Karen Priest decided to enroll at Oklahoma State,
more than half an hour’s drive from where she lived with her husband
and her young son. Because she could not drive, she thought about moving
the whole family to be near the college, but her husband needed to stay
close to his sick father. So Karen looked for a place to live with her son
near the campus, going back home on weekends.
» I didn’t want to have to stress about paying the bills and getting good
grades all at the same time. I knew that it would be quieter at my dad’s, so
I could get more schoolwork done. And also he doesn’t live in my old neighborhood, where I would be distracted by a lot of other things. – STEPHANIE
Many other first-generation college students face the problem
Stephanie was dealing with: emotional, financial, physical, academic, and
time stresses, all at once. If you try to ignore them, these issues can wear
you out. Addressing them step by step, as Stephanie did, will make a huge
difference to how well you do in college.
Plan for a living situation that will best support your studies.
College students often decide where to live based on the cost to them.
But as you calculate that cost, remember that it will cost you, in the long
run, if your lifestyle does not support your study habits.Whether you live
in a dorm, rent an off-campus apartment, or stay at home, plan carefully
for quiet time and space for your academic work.
When she lived at her mother’s house, for example, Stephanie often
did her homework on campus to get away from the bustle of home.
» I would come to the library a lot—both the town library and the one on
campus. There’s also a tech lab on campus that’s open 24 hours; I could
just go there and work on a paper or something for a while. – STEPHANIE
When he needs a computer, Naixing also used the ones at City College
of San Francisco, because he did not have one at his parents’ home.
» At home I have a study place, my bedroom. I stay there to do my homework,
just using pencil and paper. – NAIXING
Jackie commuted to her college classes in Denver from her mother’s
house. Family and friends often got together at their home, and if she had
homework to do, she had to speak up directly.
» My mom’s boyfriend lived there as well, and my uncle was staying in our
living room for a while, because he was going through a hard time. I had
my own room, but I didn’t have a desk, so I usually just studied at the
46 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
THE HOURS OF YOUR DAY 49
» You have your schedule in front of you; you know how many classes you
are taking. With the time that’s not scheduled for classes, budget time for
studying. When a friend asks you to do something, say, “Sure, I’d like to
go to that movie with you, but I’m scheduled to study from six to nine
tonight.” – DEBRA
As a high school athlete, Stephen had a busy schedule of school and
sports. At the University of Texas, he had much more freedom, but his
commitments multiplied. He realized he had to develop new skills to
balance his time.
» In college, I’m a very different kind of busy. And you don’t have someone
there holding your hand, making sure that your schedule’s laid out. I went
to sleep at seven this morning, and the night before, I went to sleep at six.
With a full course load at his university in Fort Wayne, a work-study
job on campus, and a night-shift restaurant job on weekends, John
decided to write down his complicated schedule and check it every day.
» It’s just a matter of really scheduling things. I use one planner for my life
and a separate planner for my homework assignments. I write out my
schedule and check my syllabus every day to make sure there are no surprises. Keeping up with the syllabus, that’s the biggest thing. I always have
time built into the day to do my homework. I’ve got it down: “Okay, it’s
three o’clock on a Wednesday, I’m done with class, I don’t have to work till
five. I have two hours, this is what I have to do for the next day.” I don’t
work nights on the days I have class, just on the weekends. I have Sundays
off, so I can get sleep, do laundry, clean house, whatever I need to do.
Aileen was used to balancing a part-time job with her school and
family responsibilities. But when she got to college, her classes became
more demanding, and her family still had three young children running
around. Knowing how high the stakes were, Aileen made strict rules about
when she would do her homework.
» This is my personality: I was willing to live in a tent and ride a bicycle to
class, take showers at the Wellness Center. But I found out that they had
married-student housing up here, and my scholarships cover that—so I didn’t
have to live in a tent. – KAREN
Pay attention to your body clock, and find ways to deal with it.
Like many people of college age, Hazel is not a morning person. She really
likes her college classes, but if she wanted to do well in them, she had to
reset her body clock.
» There are days when I just want to lay in bed all day, and just say, “Screw
class.” But you know, it’s just a matter of accepting your responsibility.
I wanted to go to school in the first place, I wanted to sign up for these
classes, so I might as well take advantage of them. – HAZEL
In the end, she decided to go out less in the evenings, so she could get
to bed earlier.
» I have a really, really busy lifestyle, and it took me a while to get in the
habit of getting up early, and getting to class by nine. But I do it. I just have
to force myself to go to bed really early—which is hard, because there’s
great stuff to do at night. – HAZEL
Naixing, too, tries to remember how he feels the next day in class if
he doesn’t get enough sleep.
» If I was studying or watching TV too late, or I went to hang out with friends and
went to bed late, then in the morning I feel really sleepy and I don’t want to
go to school. But when I think about how important it is, and my grades and
that kind of stuff, I encourage myself to go to school no matter what. – NAIXING
Make a plan for how to use the time available to you.
When Debra began again at the Community College of Denver, at the age
of 26, she already had several young boys at home.To manage the competing demands of academics and parenting, she looked hard at her schedule.
48 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
THE HOURS OF YOUR DAY 51
always looking for three key things when he signed up for courses: an
interesting teacher, a subject he cared about, and a class where he was not
the only one to need extra help. He learned to register online as early as
possible, then move quickly to change his decisions if he saw that a class
was not right for him.
» For online registration, they tell you the date and the time you can
register—for instance, February 22, one o’clock. So on that day, go
online at one o’clock to get into the good spots. On the first day of
class, if you don’t like the class, you can decide to change to another.
But don’t wait too late—you have to find another class instantly,
otherwise you will miss your spot. – NAIXING
Take action right away if you start to fall behind.
At times, personal problems such as sickness or family troubles may cause
you to fall behind in your studies. John’s grandmother fell ill, and he missed
a week of class when he went home to help. He worried most about
catching up in math, which was one of his most challenging subjects.
» In a math class, you always build on the last concept you learned. And
college level courses are so much faster—you learn a concept every week.
If you can’t make it to class for a week, you’re behind, and by the time
you figure it out, you’re behind two weeks! – JOHN
When he got back to school from the time with his family, he went
right to the professor and explained his situation.
» It just takes saying, “All right, this is why I’m behind,” whether it’s a good
reason or not. If it’s a bad reason, like “I was tired,” hopefully you don’t
do it again. But if you have a death in the family or something, there’s
ways that the class can be extended, they maybe give you an extra couple
of weeks. Worst case, you can take an incomplete for that class and maybe
retake it next semester. – JOHN
John had to catch up in all his classes, but he used one strategy for
math class and another in courses where he had fallen behind in the reading.
» I always give myself enough time to give it in on time. I just stay after work
two or three extra hours to do my schoolwork. Or when I get out of work,
I go to the library and finish. I only use the computer at home late at night,
when everybody’s sleeping, if I have to do some research or type something real quick. Sometimes I have to stay up late to study, but I don’t stay
up all night, ’cause then I’ll fall asleep in class. – AILEEN
Extracurricular activities are an important part of college, but they also
take up a lot of time. In her first year at Northwestern, Niema joined the
campus chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, and when
elections came she ran for secretary. Right away, she realized she would
have to adjust her other commitments.
» I thought: Okay, if I am going to run I need to write my speech, and that
has to sideline a lot of things that are going on right now. But if I win, the
position is for the whole school year. How would being on this board affect
what I’m able to do next year as a sophomore? Those are the type of
questions that you have to answer for yourself. – NIEMA
At her state university in Ohio, Stephanie had to balance her studies
with her involvement in the Latino Students Union (LSU). She also
wanted to play competitive intramural sports, so she divided her activities
across the academic year.
» During the first semester, I played coed football and basketball, and that
was all I did. I didn’t play second semester, so I had more time. I went
to LSU meetings once a week, to plan social events and stuff like that.
Keep track of college deadlines for choosing classes.
When you have to balance your time so carefully in order to do well,
choosing the right courses becomes even more important.This is particularly important for students who need extra support academically. At a
big college or university, courses fill up quickly, and unless you stay very
organized you may miss your chance to enroll in the ones you want.
Aside from fulfilling the requirements for his major, Naixing was
50 FIRST IN THE FAMILY: ADVICE ABOUT COLLEGE FROM FIRST GENERATION STUDENTS
THE HOURS OF YOUR DAY 53
Raja decided to work more than thirty hours a week to help pay for
his college. He scheduled all his classes on three days, and used the other
days to work in a local market. But he doesn’t recommend it.
» You’ll find yourself not having time for anything else. When you don’t have
time to see friends, or go to the rec center, or do any activity other than
school or work, you eventually get frustrated with the whole thing. And
that gets your motivation down, and you don’t want to do as well, or you
find short cuts and you stop going to class just to rest. If you’re going to
have to miss class to go to work, I suggest not even working, and just dealing
with that for now, and getting a loan or something. Because you won’t
learn anything that way. – RAJA
Put your education before your paying job.
As Raja discovered, financial pressures can easily threaten your college
studies. If that happens to you, look for every possible way to cut back
on your paying job. It’s not easy to set that priority, as Jackie also found.
While in college, she lived first with her mother and then with her father,
contributing to the household expenses.
» When one of my parents would get laid off and couldn’t afford to support
me, that made it even harder to stay in school. There was one point where
I was working at a work-study job and my dad was unemployed and I had
to find a way to pay as much bills as I could, plus trying to pitch in for
some food, and I was going to school full time. It makes me think I just
want to get a full-time job and live on my own, so my parents won’t have
to worry about how they’re going to feed me. – JACKIE
Despite her worries, however, Jackie kept going in school. She didn’t
want to stop the momentum she had built up toward a career that would
bring her both satisfaction and more money.
» My mom didn’t understand why I couldn’t go to college and have a job.
She wanted me to help out, and to her it didn’t seem that hard, because
she didn’t really know what college entailed. I felt bad about it, but I had
to explain, “Mom, this is hard for me, and I can’t do it.” I finally just got a
work-study job, two hours a day. – JACKIE
» If I get behind in a reading-intensive course, I start from where they’re at
in the class, and when I get time later, I pick up the stuff I missed. In math,
I spend more time getting myself up to speed—with tutoring, and talking
to the professor after class—rather than just saying, “The heck with it.”
Don’t do that! If you actively seek out to get caught up, little by little
you will. – JOHN
When she moved from home into a college dormitory for her second
year, Stephanie began to enjoy a more active social life, and her grades
dropped. Right away, she decided to do something about it.
» I got two Ds and some Cs, and I knew I could have gotten a lot better. I
retook the D classes, even though I didn’t have to, because I didn’t want
them to be on my grade point average. And the next semester, spring of
last year, I actually made the dean’s list. – STEPHANIE
Limit your workload to what you know you can handle.
You will need practical ways to manage the stresses that come when time,
money, and course work conflict with each other. After dropping out of
high school because she was bored, Hazel spent a couple of years working
at low-paying jobs with no future.When she finally went back, she enrolled
in a special program where she could earn her high school diploma while
also taking courses for college credit. It took a lot of effort to balance everything on her plate, but she had made up her mind to do it.
» There’s tricks that you have to learn to not dropping out. I’m a triple
threat: I have high school, college, and a job. So I make sure that I’ll have
time to do everything I need to do, without killing myself. If I have to take
just one college class per semester to make it work, I will. But if I know a
little bit about this and that subject, and I’m pretty sure I can handle two
college classes in a semester, then I’ll do it. You always gotta make sure
that you have a work load that you can carry, or else you’ll just quit. You
have to learn when to take a break, or else you’ll just hate it. And you will
burn out so fast. – HAZEL
52 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
THE HOURS OF YOUR DAY 55
» Since I am taking 17 units, I really wanted to focus my studies and hopefully I can do better, compared to last semester. – NAIXING
Make a plan for how to use the money available to you.
Like many first-generation college students, Eric Polk found it hard to
have a lot less money than most of his classmates. He tried not to spend it
on things that wouldn’t help him get to graduation.
» Situations where other people have money and I don’t—I still deal with
that, emotionally. If three or four of my friends were going out and I didn’t
have the cash to go, I wouldn’t go. I have my priorities first. Right now,
I still don’t have one of my books for one of my classes. If going out and
having a good time is going to mess up a chance for me to do better in my
class and get a credit that I need, then I’m going to keep my ten dollars
and put it toward that book. – ERIC
Jackie lived with one or the other of her parents, helping with the
food and utility bills when she could. She didn’t ask them for money, but
she sometimes used the money she earned to boost her morale with a
treat for herself.
» I’ve had a work-study job, to pay some of my bills and also maybe go to
a weekend movie or buy some nice clothes here and there. I try to explain
to my mom, that’s my reward to myself for working so hard. Now that I’ve
become a woman, I need to have decent clothes instead of rags, you know?
Aileen lived at home, too, but she had a part-time job as well as going
to school. She paid her own expenses, then contributed to the family from
what was left over.
» My mother and me and my sister, we all help each other. I use my paycheck
to pay my car insurance, my cell phone, my clothes, everything for myself.
And I help my mother with whatever I can, like the clothes for my three
nephews that live with us. – AILEEN
As an older student who had spent years in the work force before
starting college, John wanted to pack as much paying work as possible
into his week. But he knew he should not cut back on his classes—in part,
because full-time students qualify for more financial aid. In the end, John
also decided that it made more sense to make academics his top priority.
» Figure out how much you need to make, and work a paying job as little as
you have to. If you just need to pay for your car insurance and go out on
the weekend, there’s no need to be working 40 hours, and you might say,
“Fifteen hours is all I’m going to work for pay.” But that’s not an option if
you have a family, where you have to pay your house payment, feed your
kids, things like that. – JOHN
When he started to feel overwhelmed by the reading and writing
required of him, John learned to take a hard look at his course selections.
» Maybe you shouldn’t take three reading-intensive courses in one semester.
Maybe instead you should take this class that you were planning on taking
next year, because it’s a little less work. – JOHN
If class work spikes during one semester, you might also talk to your
employer about reducing your work hours temporarily. Jackie found that
when she took two tough science classes in one semester, she had to cut
back on her work-study hours.
» Even this semester, I’m still learning my balance in college. My work-study
is letting me do fifteen hours a week, and that may be just a little bit too
much, for as hard classes as I have. So I talked to my work-study boss, and
we both decided that we’re going to cut down my hours and I’m going to
catch up on my reading. Time is more precious than money. – JACKIE
Remember that federal student aid will often help pay for your living
expenses, freeing up more time to study. Naixing held down a part-time
job when he started at the City College of San Francisco, but his grades
were not as high as he hoped.With the help of student aid, he increased
his course load and put all his energy into his schoolwork.
54 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS 57
if you’re not working, a lot of students do get in that bind. If it’s your first
time away from home, it’s open field for anything. – KAREN
Take advantage of college resources that can help you.
Your college wants you to succeed, and it provides many different ways
to help with the different problems you encounter. Finding the right place
to live, understanding your financial aid paperwork, dealing with transportation problems—all these issues can work out more quickly if you
find the right office on campus to ask.
» At Northwest Indian College, it’s such a community and everybody there
is working for the success of the students. I had an advisor who was especially key. She gave a class on how to fill out the financial aid forms and
scholarship applications, which I still use. Once you get the key things
down, there’s so much money out there to be had. Just keep trying, keep
applying. If you don’t get one, just go on to the next application and try
again. – RENA
In Denver, both Debra and Jackie found support through a special
program for first-generation students.
» It definitely helped me acclimate to the college environment. Being a
first-generation student means that you are in unfound territory, there’s
no one who’s gone before you, that you are close to, that can tell you all
the ins and outs, give you all the ups and downs. You are on your own;
you’re going to have to learn on your own. First Generation taught me how
to apply for my courses, what courses I would need, what would come in
the following semester, how credits apply—all the things a student needs
to know. – DEBRA
Later, Jackie got a work-study job in the same office—and now she
is the one to help other students.
» I’m a student ambassador there, so I have a caseload of students to keep
track of. I contact them twice a week, about different things—deadlines,
help with financial aid, how are they doing in class, do they need a tutor
or a counselor? – JACKIE
Because John worked full time before he went to college, he found it
hard to adapt his life to a reduced income.
» They say you should only work twenty hours a week, but if I work twenty
hours a week, I’m on the street. I get grants and loans, so my tuition and
books, they’re paid for. But I still had my car payment and my rent to pay,
phone bill, electric bill, groceries … I did an itemized budget of how much
I – jackieneeded to make, and then I went to look for a job that would
match up to that. – JOHN
He juggled his paycheck with college financial aid, and by his third
year of college he had figured out how to balance his budget.
» I’m taking out more loans now, and getting grants that I didn’t get at first.
We get our financial aid checks at the end of August and the middle of
January, so I use those to pay off my rent. Then my biweekly paycheck
pays for my gas, and my financial aid covers my books. – JOHN
Buying used books can save you a lot of money. John buys almost all
of his books used, through the Internet.
» With a little research you can find web sites like half.com and
ecampus.com, where used textbooks sell really cheap. They might be
marked in a little bit, but there’s not pages missing or anything. I go to the
bookstore to get the ISBN numbers off the books, and then look them up
on the Internet. It’s easier just to put the ISBN number into your search
engine, because it will go right to the edition that you need, and there’s a
new edition every two years. At the bookstore it might cost 80, 90 dollars
for a used textbook, and I’ll find it on the Internet for 20 bucks. – JOHN
Keep credit card use to a bare minimum. Karen has seen many firstgeneration students sink into financial trouble as they take the credit card
offers that come in the mail. Unless they pay off their card in full every
month, their debts quickly pile up.
» You really don’t know the implications if you overextend on your credit.
When you use the card, you’re going to have to make a payment within
a month, and you have to come up with that money somehow. Especially
56 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
MY WEEKLY CLASS SCHEDULE 59
MY WEEKLY CLASS SCHEDULE
As you choose your courses, write the times they meet into this schedule.
This will help you avoid time conflicts and organize your day into classes,
study time, work, and other activities. (You can copy the blank form and
keep using it throughout your time at college.)
Term ___ Year __________
At Oklahoma State, Karen gave up her apartment when she left campus for the summer term. Returning early with her young son from their
time away, she had trouble getting back into their place. She turned for
help to the college advisor for Native American students.
» He made some phone calls to the housing office, and sure enough, I got in
the next day. Later, I had another friend who thought his gas and electric
was going to get cut off, and the same advisor found out there was money
available to help. – KAREN
Debra knocked on door after door at her college in Denver to get the
answers she needed.
» How you’re going to pay for college, how you’re going to support yourself,
how you are going to pick your classes, how you are going to register, the
books—ask someone to explain it to you. And if you don’t understand what
they tell you, ask someone else. If you don’t know why your award letter
has something written on it, don’t just say, “It will come to me later.”
Go find out. – DEBRA
In some cases, she had to do a little research to know the right question
to ask, before she found someone for help.
» Sometimes looking on the Internet can help you figure out the questions
to go ask someone in person. Take the initiative. Then you are in charge
of your own future. – DEBRA
Once they got control over the basics of time and money, students
like Debra could better handle the next challenge—doing well in their
academics. In the next chapter, they will tell how they took the initiative
in that area, too.
58 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
period Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
period Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
HOW DO I USE MY TIME? 61
HOW DO I USE MY TIME?
You will need to think carefully about how you balance your time among
different things: classes, studying and homework, working at your job,
eating, sleeping, clubs or activities, exercise, and so forth. In your first few
weeks at college (especially during your first year), write on this worksheet what you are doing with every hour of your time.Then analyze
the worksheet to find areas that compete with each other, and write your
notes on that below. You can then adjust your daily habits to make the
very best use of your time.
Notes, ideas, reflections:
60 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
READING, WRITING, AND AIMING HIGH 63
Reading,Writing, and Aiming High
Your critical college skills can only get better
When she enrolled in the Community College of Denver at the
age of 26, Debra Graves had already faced enough trouble for a
lifetime.Without a stable parent in her life, in sixth grade she quit school
and left home, and by fourteen Debra had a child herself.While living in a
battered women’s shelter, she earned her high school equivalency degree at
seventeen. But her first try at college did not go well, and she flunked out.
By the time she tried again, Debra had decided to build her own
family’s future on the foundation of her college education. “Education has
changed my life,” she says about the past three years. “It is the one thing
I can do at my own pace and that I can be really good at.” She has four
sons now, and they inspire her to keep on going for a university degree
after she finishes with community college.
For Debra, doing college right meant having the courage to go back
to square one. She saw the college’s academic support system of her as a lifeline, and she used it to strengthen her skills and move forward on her own.
» If I want to get an A on a paper, I know what that means. It means I work
harder on that paper, I do better research, I find papers others students
wrote years ago and see how they did theirs. Nobody can prevent me,
no one can stop me from doing well. I can be my own master. – DEBRA
Debra has had to work hard to earn her grades, and she feels great
satisfaction in that. At home, she is passing along to her boys the methods
she learned in college.
» My boys are required to do math facts and reading every night. And when
they want something, I tell them to write me an essay, I want it edited,
proofed, revised, typed up and brought to me. They are very clear in my
expectations in that area. – DEBRA
READING, WRITING, AND AIMING HIGH 65
• What is most important to read, and what you can safely skip
• How to skim a text while still understanding the material
• How to remember what you read
• How to use what you read to do well in class and on papers
• How to select your courses so that you balance your reading load
As a history major, John found himself overwhelmed by his reading
» In my freshman history class, we had a textbook and three novels to read.
The novels were about 250 pages apiece, and in sixteen weeks you have
to keep up on your textbook reading, plus class lectures, plus these three
novels, and then you have to write papers on these three novels. So you’re
going through a new novel about every three weeks. – JOHN
He quickly decided to spend minimal time on reading the textbook,
using it only for reference.
» Textbooks you don’t read word for word. You just get the main ideas out of
it, along with what’s discussed in class, and you have a pretty good grasp.
A lot of my upper level classes don’t even use textbooks. We use primary
source documents that the professor puts together in a nice little book,
and you read a couple of articles per class period. – JOHN
Milenny, too, had a rude shock in her first year at Wheaton College,
when she saw how much reading her professors assigned.
» I was really upset because no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t doing
enough. The only way I saw to do better was to just bury myself in the
library and never leave. Before, I thought that if they assigned fifteen
chapters or something, I had to read every word, every page, every single
little thing. And then after a while once you get the rhythm of the professor and what you actually need to learn, it wasn’t as hard any more,
and I just learned how to pick out the important facts. – MILENNY
Effective reading and note-taking skills do not come naturally to most
people.Yet they make all the difference when it comes time to study for
Debra’s story shows the importance of starting where you are academically, and also of aiming high. In this chapter, she and other students describe
how they got from square one to their college diploma, step by step.
Find out what resources your college provides for academic help.
If you are stuck on how to organize a paper or solve a math problem,
your college has places you can turn for help. At tutoring and resource
centers—and sometimes right in your dormitory—advanced students or
special staff members will coach you on writing, math, or other academic
issues you have.
» Don’t be ashamed to go to a tutor. In high school, I thought I was supposed to
know everything, but when I got here, it was like, “I need some help!” – ERIC
When you have trouble in any particular class, you should ask the
professor if tutoring can be arranged. Most likely, you will be paired with
a student who is paid by the college to help you.
» The student tutors at the writing center had a background in English, and
you could tell they knew what they were talking about. They worked with
you, they took their time with you, and that’s how I really did good with
English and got my skills up for writing research papers. Now I have this
real good tutor for biology, and I’m trying to get her for chemistry, too. She
is a student but she happens to be a really good teacher as well. – JACKIE
Manage your reading load.
Even students who come from very demanding high schools often feel
shocked at how much reading most college courses require. In reality, one
fact of life about college is that almost nobody can actually do all of the
assigned reading in all their classes.Yet developing ways to manage it is
worth the trouble it takes.The skills of reading and understanding materials
in a time-effective way will benefit you not just throughout college, but
all your life long.
If you are not used to reading so much difficult material, or if you
have limited English, you will need a plan to deal with several issues:
64 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
READING, WRITING, AND AIMING HIGH 67
to have people dissect my work and put it all back together. It was really
tough. But it made me so much better for that. I learned how to write collegelevel material. Better yet, I got published in my third semester. – DEBRA
When she started taking college classes, Hazel had never written a
long paper before. In order to focus and organize her thoughts for more
than a few pages, she had to ask someone for help.
» I knew how to write short papers from high school, but I didn’t know how to
write a twelve-page paper without rambling. How do I make it sound like
I’m not crazy? I didn’t want to ask the teacher for help, because I thought
it would make me look weaker than the other students. But you’re going to
feel so stupid when you’ve worked on this thing so hard, and just because
you didn’t ask the right questions, you don’t end up getting a good grade.
John, too, started college without the basic writing skills he needed.
During his first year, he took two remedial writing courses in a row, and
he also used peer editors at the college’s writing center.
» My writing teacher got to the point: “You can do better than this.” She’s
like, “I can see you have good ideas, you just don’t know how to put them
together.” So I would write my first draft and take it in to the writing center.
A half hour to an hour later, you have all these ideas how to shorten it,
expand it, grammar, and everything. – JOHN
John realized that the most important thing was getting something
down on paper to begin with. He sought out any reader who would give
him feedback.Then he revised again and again.
» You give it your best shot, get those ideas out of your head, print it off
and look over it—and you turn in the draft to your professor. Then you have
to take it back, learn what they’re looking for in this paper, make those
corrections. If you’re still not happy with it or not sure what they want,
take that second draft back to them, too. Say, “Can you look over this?”
If they can’t, find somebody that can. Somewhere in your university, somebody knows how to write that paper. – JOHN
exams, write research papers, make presentations, and participate in class
discussions. And they also save you time! Signing up for help with reading
skills at your college’s academic resource center will put you a giant step
ahead in many of the courses you take.
Writing is everything.
Just as with reading, learning to write well is not easy.Writing is thinking
on paper—and the more you practice writing clearly, the more clearly you
will find yourself thinking. As a first-generation student, learning to write
will pay off more than any other skill that you develop in your college
years. In a very real way, it is what you are at college for, because it can
put you on equal footing with much more privileged students.
Writing will help you succeed in college—when you write papers,
when you apply for a class that you really want to take or a position on a
committee you care about, when you write letters applying for financial
support.As you apply for internships and jobs, whatever the field, good
writing skills will help you stand out. Even in your private life, writing
can help you say what you really mean when it matters most.
In fact, writing is such a personal act of connection that sometimes it
can expose your deepest self.When she turned in her first college paper,
Debra felt on top of the world.Then came the blow.
» In front of the entire class the instructor handed me my paper and said,
“Debra, you need to go to the writing lab to learn how to write more collegelevel material.” I was devastated, I was so crushed. I looked at the grade,
it was a C minus, and I said, “ Oh, God, my life is over.” I was so humiliated.
“What made me think I could do this?” I don’t think I heard anything else
the instructor said in the class that day. I went straight home, ran into the
bathroom and started crying. – DEBRA
After she dried her eyes, Debra picked herself up and took herself to
the college writing lab.
» I ended up getting an A on the next assignment and every assignment after
that, and I finished that semester on the vice president’s list. If I had quit,
I never would have known what I was capable of. Sure, it was embarrassing
66 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
READING, WRITING, AND AIMING HIGH 69
John repeated one of his college math classes because he did not grasp
the concepts the first time around. He refused to get discouraged because
he did not get top grades in a subject where he lacked a solid background.
» I got C’s in all my math classes, thank God! Am I happy with those C’s?
No, because I have a higher level of expectation for myself. But are those
realistic grades for me? Yes, I believe that is the best I could have done. I
came from a person who barely knew algebra to passing a class in
trigonometry. You know, that was a major accomplishment for me. – JOHN
College is a long haul, and everyone gets their fair share of hard times.
Like John, you can be realistic and positive at the same time. Don’t forget
to celebrate your successes, small and large.
» The first test that I got back in my first college class, I got an A on! I was
so excited, I went home and put it up with a little magnet frame on the
refrigerator. When my parents walked in I was like, “Hey Mom! Look at the
fridge! Check out my grade!” I was telling everybody: my aunt who lives
in Chicago, my grandma. I felt so good that I put in the time to study and
I got a good grade. All those times that my mom said, “If you work hard,
good things will happen,” she wasn’t just lying! It’s really true. – HAZEL
As she began to plan for her next degree after community college,
Debra had a sense of pride and accomplishment. She had come a long way
from her high school dropout days, and she was going even farther.
» When I get an A, it’s amazing, I know I did that, that it’s my work and I’m
the one who gets the credit and no one can stop me. Besides, I like the
feeling of knowing stuff. When my boys ask me a question and I can answer
it, they think I know everything! – DEBRA
As he paid attention to what worked and what didn’t, John developed
confidence as a writer and started to do well on his college papers.
» I never had the greatest education when I was growing up. To this day, I
still can’t spell very well, and my grammar is horrible. But what I have been
able to develop is, I know how to write a paper: Okay, these are the sources
I have, this is how you put all the sources together. A lot of it is learning
the styles of writing. Then it’s practice, practice, practice, practice. More
practice. – JOHN
For Rena, studying writing in college also opened a whole world of
personal expression, giving voice to her powerful imagination and ideas.
Right after receiving her college diploma, she went East to study for a
masters degree in fine arts. Someday, she will take what she learns back
» As soon as I have my M.F.A., I want to teach English writing and Native
American literature at our tribal college. – RENA
Recognize and take pride in your own accomplishments.
As you develop your reading and writing skills, you will probably start to
do better in all your college classes. But time after time, you will also have
to pick yourself up from disappointment. It’s very important to give yourself the credit you deserve for simply trying hard and keeping on going.
Jackie had a hard time in her first college biology class, but she knew
she would have to do well in that subject to follow her chosen path in
dentistry. She kept working hard in the next level class, and the concepts
started to take hold in her mind.This time, she earned top grades—and
her confidence went up, too.
» I may have not had biology in high school—so guess what: I’ll struggle the
first semester. But the second semester and the third, I’ll get better and
better. I studied very hard the first term, but I ended up getting a C, and
that’s good for that class! And I just aced the next course. – JACKIE
68 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
WHAT DO I WANT FOR MYSELF? 71
In Other Areas
To develop in this area, what do I need to do or learn?
Who or what might support me in this?
To develop in this area, what do I need to do or learn?
Who or what might support me in this?
WHAT DO I WANT FOR MYSELF?
You are more likely to achieve your academic and personal goals if you
break them down into smaller parts. Use the first part of this worksheet
to make notes on what academic skills you need for each class and how
you can get help on them. In the second part of the worksheet, make
notes about how you hope to develop in non-academic ways (for example,
through activities that may enrich your life or reduce your stress).
In My Courses
To do better in this class, what could I work on?
Who I can ask for help with this:
To do better in this class, what could I work on?
Who I can ask for help with this:
70 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Good Times and Hard Times
College is a social and emotional experience
Maly Fung comes from a close and traditional Chinese
family. Her parents immigrated from a rural area of China to
Venezuela, where Maly and her siblings grew up speaking both Chinese
and Spanish.When time came for high school, the family picked up and
moved again—this time to Queens, a borough of New York City. Maly’s
parents wanted their children to prepare for college in the United States,
so she went to a city public school for immigrant students.
She had another culture shock when she accepted a scholarship to
Lafayette College, a selective private college in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. About two hours’ drive from her home, it felt like a different
» I’m a very metropolitan person, I like to walk around and go to different
places. But when you’re dorming at Lafayette, it’s Friday night and what
do you do? There’s not that many options. The crickets are crying! And
there’s nothing going on but a house party or a frat party! – MALY
For her first weeks at college, Maly called home almost every night,
weeping. But then she decided that she would never be happy unless she
once again could accept and adjust to a new environment. She joined the
international students association, and made good friends there. And she
kept always in her mind the thought that her education mattered—not
just for herself but for her family.
» They are the reason why I am doing this. I want to be somebody for them,
I want to be successful so they can be proud. But it’s for me, too. I’ve come
all this way… I want to feel I have achieved something. – MALY
Maly’s positive attitude got her through, and four years later she graduated and came back to New York. She always felt like something of an
72 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
GOOD TIMES AND HARD TIMES 75
Stephanie lived at home during her first year, which did save some
money. But she looked wistfully at the new friendships made by her best
friend from high school, who lived in a dorm.
» So for my sophomore year, I actually moved to the dorms, and I made a lot
of friends. I didn’t think it would be all it was, and I was wrong. It’s something
that everyone should do for at least one year, because you meet a lot of
people and it’s a lot of fun. – STEPHANIE
Look for others who have something in common with you.
Karen came from a small community, and when she started at Oklahoma
State University she felt overwhelmed by how huge and impersonal it felt.
» I remember my first, second day on campus, I could not believe all these
students! I had tears in my eyes, and I thought, What am I going to do?!
And then I saw this one guy from Oklahoma City, and I was like, “Oh! Come
here, I need a hug!” – KAREN
Seeking out other Native American students on campus also helped
her find her balance.
» I think it’s important that we find our niche, find people like us. There’s
a special house where a lot of Native Americans live, and there’s a Native
students club that meets bi-weekly, we have pow-wows and take trips.
There’s also this program to help minority students transition. – KAREN
As a Chinese immigrant who was still learning English, Naixing felt
shy when he started community college in San Francisco. He started by
making friends with other students who spoke his language. But then he
gathered his courage to start conversations with others who had interests
in common with him.
» I saw someone doing math homework, and I asked him, “Are you taking
calculus?” I told him that I took it already, and if you need help, you can
go to the library. So I was giving a lot of suggestions to him, and then we
started to make friends. We say hello to each other on campus, and whenever we are coming on the bus we sit together and have a conversation.
outsider at her college in the countryside. But she had also found things
in common with classmates whose backgrounds were nothing like hers.
» You definitely feel conflicted when you stand out in a group, and you’re
going through different experiences. You feel a little bit discouraged. But
if you already stand out, you might as well shine. When you talk to people,
you realize that they also go through problems. It’s not that different from
anybody else. – MALY
In this chapter, first-generation students describe their good times
as well as their hard times as they got used to the social and emotional
aspects of college life. Like them, you can make friendships that expand
your world, help you learn, and also provide you with emotional support.
And like them, you can also find other places to turn when college feels
too overwhelming—including your counselors and advisers, your loved
ones, and even yourself.
Find different ways to make friends.
When she first got to college, Jackie’s homework took so much time that
she didn’t have enough to make new friends. Looking at the problem more
closely, she decided that she would try to make friends by studying together.
» I would talk to people in my class, a little at a time. I would ask them a
question or crack a joke, and then I would get someone’s phone number
and say, Let’s study together, or something like that. – JACKIE
Karen, a Native American student in Oklahoma, reminded herself that
cultural factors might be preventing students like her from making that
» A lot of Native students, they don’t want to make a scene. The way I was
raised, when you’re quiet, it shows respect. You have to get out of that
mindset, put your hand out there, open your mouth. You might have to
take that first step. You know, the other student is just as scared as you
are. But someone has to break that ice. – KAREN
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GOOD TIMES AND HARD TIMES 77
» I’m a lot more liberal now. I’m not saying I was really conservative in high
school, but now my mind is more open to a lot of different things. Like this
past summer, where I worked, a lot of gay guys work there. And now I
almost get offended when someone else says something about a guy—I get
upset. College is a great way to open your mind. – STEPHANIE
As Karen grew more active in the Native American association on
campus, she also developed leadership skills she didn’t know she had.
» One day I got tired of saying, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to do
that,” when we don’t do nothing! I said, “Let’s sit down right now, let’s have
a talk.” I got out a piece of paper and I put down all the ingredients and
I said, “What can you donate,” and I set a time and a date, and I said,
“I will call”—and right after that meeting, I called. – KAREN
Your social network also provides an emotional safety net.
At times, the difficulties of college life come at you like a flood, and
friends know what you are going through better than anyone. After dropping out of high school, Hazel returned to earn her diploma through a
special program that combined high school with community college.
While she often needed a sympathetic ear, she didn’t want certain people
» If I found myself struggling or needing help, I ran straight to friends that
are about my age or a little bit older. I didn’t want parents or teachers to
know that I was having a hard time with my schoolwork, I thought that
they would freak out and think that I was dropping out again. Anything
but that! Instead, I would get pretty good advice from friends who had
been in this situation before. – HAZEL
Karen finds supportive friendships in the Native American sorority at
Oklahoma State, and Stephen found the same thing in a Latino fraternity
at the University of Texas.
» I never thought I would be in a sorority! It’s all Native women, to provide
sisterhood for the college student. We’re a social sorority, and we do a lot
of community service hours, and we’re big on education also. – KAREN
For me, ethnicity or race is not really a barrier. If someone has the same
interests as yours, you will make friends. – NAIXING
Maly joined a feminist student group and another group that worked
for social justice. She appreciated the close friends she made, but she also
felt that she was making a difference in an area that mattered to her.
» In a way it’s kind of a small community within the college community. You
meet people that have the same mentality, the same aspirations that you
do. It reinforces your will to fight for those causes. That’s something that
I really like about college, you find people that are like-minded. – MALY
People you meet in student organizations can expand your
As he participated in various student clubs and organizations, Stephen also
found himself building a network of new friends, and their activities
together had much to teach him.
» I got involved in the intergroup dialogue class, with the Latino students.
The theory behind it is you take groups of people who wouldn’t normally
sit down at the table and discuss the issues that affect their relationships,
in society or interpersonally. We talked about race, religion, ageism, gender,
sexism . . . Those are things that aren’t discussed a lot of times in the
academic setting, so I loved the opportunity. – STEPHEN
As a college student in Ohio during a presidential election year,
Stephanie had a chance to learn about politics firsthand, by joining the
» It was a tough loss, but it was such an awesome opportunity to be involved
in campaigning. It was just undescribable, to be behind something with
all your heart—we went to see John Kerry together, and things like that—
and then, the let down… That was definitely one of the best things that
I did throughout my college years. – STEPHANIE
She found herself changing her own political beliefs, too, through her
college experiences at college.
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GOOD TIMES AND HARD TIMES 79
Don’t forget old friends and loved ones when you need support.
Your friends who have seen you conquer other obstacles can give you a
valuable boost when the college path gets difficult. If you feel like giving
up, reach out to them for help.
At the lowest point in Eric’s first semester, feeling humiliated by a
professor’s response to his work, he decided that college was not for him.
He went back to his dorm room, packed a suitcase, and called a close
friend from high school to say he was coming home.
» And she started laughing at me. I was like, “What is so freaking funny?”
She’s like, “Let me tell you something! I’m at work right now, busting my
butt to get where you are, and you’re going to let one professor bring you
away from something you worked your butt off to get? You deserve to be
there, and you’re just going to give it up like that?” I was like, Wow. – ERIC
Aileen Rosario lived with her family when she started college at the
community college near her home in Paterson, New Jersey. She worked at
a part-time job and helped her mother with the household chores.With
all the stresses her family faced, no one had much time to talk about how
college was going for Aileen. But her boyfriend was going through the
same thing, which helped them both to keep trying.
» I talk a lot with him about school, because we almost have the same background. He’s the first to go to college in his family, and he has to pay out of
his pocket. He talks to me about some classes he’s taking that I took already,
like psychology and sociology. We help each other, which is good, ’cause
nobody asks him at his house, “How are you doing in school?” – AILEEN
Jackie always had the sense that her parents were watching out for her
stress level.Whenever she got discouraged, they cheered her on.
» I’ll tell them, “I just don’t understand, this class is so hard, and I’m thinking
of dropping it.” And they’re like “No, don’t give up, Jackie, you’re smart
and you’ve got to keep going. Just think about it, you’re studying right now
and you’re going to make it through!” – JACKIE
» A lot of my fraternity brothers are first-generation college students.
They know what it was like to be Mexican, what it was like to grow up in a
humble household and for your parents not to be able to support you in
the ways they wanted to. They don’t have a lot of the same motivations
and pushes as white students, but they are very determined, and I really
appreciate and respect that. – STEPHEN
Friends your own age are not the only place to turn.Teachers, employers,
and other adults can also provide emotional support. Aileen kept her parttime job when she began community college, and the same supervisors
who had helped her on her way to college also stood by her when she
needed it now.
» The operations manager is the first in her family to graduate college, and
her parents were strict like mine. So she understands me, and sometimes
when I am going crazy, I’m too stressed and I need somebody to talk to,
I go to her. You need somebody older, somebody wiser to talk to. Somebody that will understand what you’re going through. – AILEEN
Milenny’s Italian professors made sure that she persisted even when
she was discouraged.
» A lot of other professors were scared to break that barrier with the students,
but my Italian professors were encouraging. They tried to make me feel
comfortable, they told me, “You can do it!” Little things like that, for me,
made a big difference. – MILENNY
Even in places that you wouldn’t expect, you will find friends to
support you when you need it. Eric made friends with the workers in
his dormitory, for example.
» People ask me, “Why do you know the entire kitchen staff? Why do you
know the janitors?” I’m like, “If you shut out people, you’re going to be by
yourself.” These are people, too. When I run out of Deacon Dollars, they
feed me: “Baby, go on back there and get you whatever you want.” When
our heater broke, the next day it was fixed. Across all lines, you never
know who can help you in life. – ERIC
78 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
GOOD TIMES AND HARD TIMES 81
Think positive. At first, both Jackie and Maly struggled with their difficult
academic courses. But each of them decided to take a more accepting attitude
toward their stresses, and focus on the positive aspects of their learning
» You’ve got to fight against your negative thoughts, like how I thought that
I wouldn’t be good enough or smart enough in college, or “Maybe I can’t
handle this.” I gotta put those thoughts away, and take the perspective
that “I own my college and it doesn’t own me.” – JACKIE
» I stopped stressing, because me just thinking about it as me being dumb
and trying to do every little thing was just not working for me at all. I just
went with the flow. After the first year I just started doing better and kept
doing better. And my junior and senior year I really got the hang of things.
Limit partying. Jackie had to remind herself that taking time to relax was
an important element of succeeding in college.
» That’s how it is in school—it’s a roller coaster. Sometimes you deal with
bad situations, and sometimes it’s better. What I found the best is trying to
collect myself and not to worry, because worry is the worst thing I can do
for myself. I’m just going to try as hard as I can with the time that I have.
And then I’m going to try and find a balance in my life as well. Spend time
with my boyfriend and my friends and my family, and have quality time
with them—even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. You gotta find the things
that’ll make you feel happy. – JACKIE
Hazel also found that taking time out with her friends reduced her
general stress level. But the college party scene, she noticed, turned out to
be a bad way to do it.
» Drinking and partying, if done improperly, just adds more stress to school.
If anything, it’s less stressful to wake up in the morning and go to class
without a hangover than to wake up in the morning with your underwear on
the ceiling and your head is throbbing and you have to go to a class. – HAZEL
Jackie was lucky to have such family support, but not every student
does. In the next section, you will hear other suggestions for keeping your
emotional balance and reducing your stress, at the same time you are
managing the academic demands of college.
Find ways to take care of yourself.
When you feel overwhelmed by everything you have to do, it helps to
break down big challenges into small ones. As you look at your obstacles
one by one, pay close attention to what makes each thing hard. If you
can find just one small way to deal with it, you will make your next day
a little more satisfying.
The students in this book had a number of different suggestions for
Take time for yourself. Mike Morris went far from his rural Mississippi
home to attend college at Brigham Young University in Utah, which
recruited him to play football. He found the culture there completely foreign,
from social life to religion, geography, and climate. A quiet person who
guards his privacy, he often regained his sense of balance in solitude.
» I’m one of those guys who sometimes doesn’t like to be around a lot of
people. I just like to isolate myself away from people and be by myself.
Sometimes when you’re by yourself you understand things better. And
people don’t understand that. – MIKE
Pay attention when you feel sad or lonely. Eric Polk, too, went to college
far from home, and Wake Forest University felt worlds apart from his
familiar past. He used his own knowledge of himself to find ways to ease
his sadness and isolation.
» I am an expert in loneliness. I get homesick—and I get lonely for myself,
when I feel out of touch with myself. The way I deal with it, I just try to be
goal oriented, to do things that make me feel fulfilled in some way. I make
a “to do” list, and crossing out something makes me feel good. Or I write
poetry, or a song—just putting the frustration out on the piano. Even just
talking to people. I try to keep a smile on my face. Sometimes I feel like
you have to laugh to keep from crying. – ERIC
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GOOD TIMES AND HARD TIMES 83
» There are events every weekend, clubs you can go to, or museums. Anywhere you go, there’s going to be something you can get into. Somewhere
where you can find an outlet and you can find some type of joy. – NIEMA
» I like to draw, and my friend was taking it, too. So I said to myself to take
the art class, to enjoy it and also to strengthen our friendship. – NAIXING
Take breaks. If you feel discouraged by the academic challenges of college,
taking a break from your books can lend you a fresh perspective. Joining
a campus club, participating in a cultural or political event, trying out a
new activity—all these count as part of your education, too.You’ll take
more energy, and more experience, back to your studies afterward.
» I know a lot of people who feel like college sucks right now—but they’re
not leaving college. They’re just not spending their whole life in the library.
College has more to offer than books. – NIEMa
Get counseling. Sometimes college and personal issues will take an
emotional toll that even your friends and family can’t address. But feeling
depressed does not reflect negatively on you, and your college has resources
that can help you get better. Most campus health centers offer free counseling sessions that help you regain your balance.
Karen took advantage of this when family problems made it hard for
her to concentrate on school.
» There was a time where I thought my husband and I was going to split,
and I could not study for a Spanish test. It helped when I went to university
counseling. – KAREN
Maly definitely appreciated having a sympathetic ear when the stress
got too great.
» At first it was like, Well am I really at that point where I need counseling?
So I went and tried it, and it was helpful. It’s good to go and talk to somebody, even if they don’t have the answer—especially when you’re struggling
through finals and papers, and not losing your friends, staying in touch
with family and not losing yourself. There is always that sense that your
As Karen attended Oklahoma State, she too noticed how many students
seemed to be dragged down by the drinking culture. Native American
students like her, she decided, had too much to lose by doing that.
» Books and beer does not mix. I learned that very quick. For any student,
being away from the confines of mother and dad, it’s very easy to get into
that party-party-party group. And it’s a chemical imbalance that Natives
have, they need to be aware that they might not have that alcohol tolerance.
It’s up to you to prioritize. Am I going to go to that party tonight, or am I
going to study? Is your dream, what you want to be in life, more important,
or is partying? Because partying will always be there; your dream will not
always be there. – KAREN
Stephanie tried to hang out with people who cared about good grades
as well as good times.
» A lot of people think that college is all partying. I’m not saying that you
shouldn’t go out and party, because everyone does. Your friends are a
major part of college, and obviously that’s awesome, it’s a good time. But
the friends that I hang out with most, we like to go out, but if we have a
test tomorrow, there’s no way we’re going to go out. – STEPHANIE
Get exercise. Jackie knew from experience that physical exercise helped
relieve her stress levels, and she made it a priority. She signed up for a
workout class on campus every semester, for elective credit, and she took
every chance she got to play sports.
» I love to play sports—it’s a way to vent my stresses in a positive way, instead
of going and partying on the weekend. It’s a lot better because you feel
great afterwards, and during, you’re having fun. I’m a person who loves to
interact with other people, and working out in a group makes me happy.
And you don’t have a hangover, that’s for sure! – JACKIE
Enjoy the arts. The arts also provide a good way to relieve your college
stresses. At Northwestern University outside Chicago, Niema balanced her
academic time by going out to the arts events that always made her happy,
from poetry slams to art shows. And Naixing, in San Francisco, decided to
take a studio art class just for the pleasure and relaxation it gave him.
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WHAT RELIEVES MY STRESS 85
WHERE TO GO FOR HELP
It helps to think about stress management before you are in the midst of
college stress. Use this worksheet to write down the numbers of whatever
resources your college or community may provide. Healthy stress relief comes
in many forms—talk therapy, meditation, breathing exercises, physical activity—so make notes now about the things you would be most likely to try.
Also listed below is contact information for organizations providing
phone counseling and information in other troubling situations.
Your college counseling services:
Your college health center:
Your college fitness or recreation center
Classes available in stress management (may include yoga, meditation, or
Emergency Contraception Information: --NOT--LATE (---)
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth Support Line: ---
Relationship Violence Hotline: ---SAFE (TDD call ---)
Sexually Transmitted Disease Information, Centers for Disease Control:
National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.nida.nih.gov) ---
National Mental Health Association ---
Planned Parenthood, Inc. ---PLAN
Sexual Assault Hotline --
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: --- (TTY users call ---)
Suicide Prevention Helpline (specializing in gay and lesbian youth)
experience is very different from what anybody else is experiencing. But
they understood. It’s good to have somebody listen to you. – MALY
In coming to terms with her feelings of being an outsider, Maly was
also developing a new sense of who she is and what she stands for.
» I’ve grown very confident of what I believe in and what I am. Being in a very
homogeneous college it’s very easy to either go their way or completely
isolate yourself from them. But I’ve learned how to stay in between—still
participating in social events that they go to, but doing it in my own way.
Always, always, stay true to yourself. – MALY
In the next chapter, others will tell more about how their sense of self
developed as they went through college. As first-generation students, they
faced issues of race, origin, social class, and economic privilege, and had
to stay true to themselves while adapting to a whole new world.
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WHO ARE YOU NOW? 87
Who Are You Now?
You develop a new identity while at college
If you didn’t know his name, Raja Fattah could pass as any kind
of inner-city student walking the bland suburban campus of Ohio’s
Kent State University.The son of Palestinian immigrants, he grew up in a
poor black section of Cleveland and his tastes reflect the hip-hop culture.
» I get it for being Puerto Rican, Mexican, black and white, Palestinian — you
can’t tell what I am, so they’re going to assume a lot of things, just off the
top. – RAJA
In Raja’s years at college, for example, teachers have written him off as
likely not to do well—before they saw his grade on the first test. His dorm
adviser has reported him for playing loud rap music—but ignored other
students who blast their rock and roll.
» Just from little things like that, I knew that some people on this campus
didn’t want to see people like me, people of my culture or background or
where I’m from or what I represent. That’s just how it is. – RAJA
Inaccurate assumptions—by teachers, by fellow students, even by the
local police—have become an everyday fact of Raja’s college career. But he
just keeps being himself: talking openly about discrimination, having good
times with friends, studying hard and getting good grades, and working
long hours at a gas station market to pay for his education. Raja hopes for
a job at the F.B.I. some day. If he gets it, he will have had plenty of practice
at moving through different cultures and roles.
In this chapter, students describe the complicated and important
process of remaining true to themselves in an environment where they
differ from the norm. Just by getting to college, you have scaled a wall
that keeps thousands of capable and motivated students from higher
education because of their race, origin, social class, and access to money.
But confronting those issues does not stop once you are on the other
WHO ARE YOU NOW? 89
You can teach other students by being real about who you are.
Eric felt uncomfortable when his rich white friends wanted to borrow his
clothes for a “ghetto” party. So he spoke up.
» For people out here who don’t know the reality of growing up in the
ghetto, it’s my responsibility to share that. It’s not a game—that’s everyday life for some people. For you to play around with it because you don’t
know any better, that’s fine, but if I’m here to explain it, I don’t expect to
see that coming from you again. Because that’s offensive. So now it’s like,
“Dang, Eric, you really got outspoken.” – ERIC
It bothered Milenny to see other students acting as if money didn’t
» If I used a napkin to dry my hand, I put it on the side so that it could dry.
My roommate would take five napkins to clean a mirror, and I was like,
“You just need one!” For me, you don’t throw anything away—if you can’t
use it, someone else can! Over the years, [my roommate] learned a lot
more. But some people just throw money away, and that was really strange
to me. They would go out and buy five pairs of jeans, and I was like, “Okay!
You will waste your money!” – MILENNY
Like Eric and Milenny, you have a lot to contribute to other people’s
knowledge and understanding, in your conversations with them about
race, origin, class, and money.Though such discussions are rarely easy,
everybody learns from them.
» A lot of people here have led sheltered lives—even now, they do. They grew
up where it’s easy to get away from people not like them, to only see rich
white people that look just like themselves. And sometimes it causes heat,
for me to say things from what I know about the world. It’s not as sheltered as they think it is! I’m not going to be fake with anybody, I want to be
as real as I possibly can. Sometimes they teach me stuff, sometimes I
teach them stuff. I mean, that’s college for you. – ERIC
side of the wall.And as you keep doing it, you will be forging a strong new
Hold on to yourself.
Mingling with people in different college settings, many students have the
chance to try on new roles or styles. Maly watched the fraternity and sorority
scene at Lafayette College, and wondered where she fit in.
» Being a freshman in college, I wanted to belong. And some people just
want to belong so bad they would just follow the big groups. – MALY
Freedom to experiment with your identity can feel liberating. But
make sure your choices reflect your values and character, shaped by the
experiences unique to you. Eric signed up for a dorm where everyone
agreed to stay away from using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.
» I really hate that my mom smokes. And there’s a number of alcoholics in
our family. I’ve been around the stuff all my life at home, I don’t want to be
around it at college! College is one of those things where you find yourself.
It’s about knowing who I am, but being able to be that person. I found out
what Eric Polk would tolerate and what Eric Polk won’t tolerate, what I will
get involved with and what I won’t. – ERIC
Both Eric and Jackie fought their way to college from high schools
that gave them an academic preparation far below what they needed.They
knew that others would be watching whether they could make the grade.
But they had done it before, and they would do it now.
» Do not forget where you come from. When you get to college and you finally
taste that freedom, don’t forget the struggles that brought you where you
are. All the frustration that you had, all the times where you felt like you’re
not going to make it, and how you found that motivation to go ahead and
do it anyway. You’re lost if you forget it, you’re lost. – ERIC
» We all represent our groups—no matter what we do, our actions, or lack of
action, will show it. I found ways to take pride in my culture and to feel
confident in that, without having to worry about what other people think.
By succeeding in school, I am representing my group in a good way. – JACKIE
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WHO ARE YOU NOW? 91
Stephen began to provide that support for fellow students, through
the university’s Latino Leadership Council.
Find places to talk openly with other students about identity.
At her mostly white state university in Ohio, Stephanie’s course in Latino
studies was the first place she felt comfortable talking in a mixed group
about race and ethnicity.
» It was cool, because everyone was speaking their mind, and the minority
in that class was Caucasian people. It definitely helped you feel like you’re
not leaving your people behind. Maybe we [Latinos] didn’t all come from
the exact same background, but we pretty much felt the same way about
different things we talked about in class. Which is really different, and it
opened up the eyes of the white kids in the class. – STEPHANIE
With a skilled teacher, a class like that can provide a safe place to
explore issues of identity and directly investigate the history of a culture.
Multicultural centers or clubs offer the same advantage, in a less formal
» The international students association is by far the best organization on
campus. They’re so welcoming, everybody’s integrating, it’s not just about
one culture or one person. We’re learning about everybody, we’re learning
about everything. – MALY
Have a plan for how to respond if you encounter prejudice.
Race and class prejudices exist, even on liberal college campuses. Students
of color, working-class students, women, and gay and lesbian students
commonly experience the kind of bias that Raja encountered in many of
» Some of the teachers look at me and they figure, “This guy is a clown, he’s
not here to learn. He looks like he’s urban, his pants are sagging, he’s got
his hat on backward,” or something. They’re going to look at what you
wear and how you’re walking and they’re basically going to judge your
personality on that. That’s the main thing I had to get over—every year,
Speak out if people stereotype you or others.
People often deal with social discomfort by trying to be funny. But you
don’t need to laugh it off if people make jokes about your background or
disrespect where you’re coming from. At first, Milenny responded politely
to people who crossed the line.
» One of my friends said, “You probably live in a ghetto neighborhood.”
I said, “Yeah, I think if you would go there, you would consider it ghetto.”
But later she grew impatient with the ignorance reflected in such
» We went out to eat in Providence, in this area with a lots of Hispanics and
minorities, and she was scared, like, “I’m gonna die, they’re gonna hit me
with a car!” I was like, “No they’re not, they’re just people!” – MILENNY
Eric also got tired of playing along with certain attitudes. He decided
that from now on he would stand up for his identity.
» At first, I would go along with “you’re ghetto.” I was like, “I sure am from the
projects!” —making a joke of something that I really took to be very serious.
And that was not cool, just to go along with it. It feeds into that stereotype.
I can’t do that to you all who were raised up like me. So I don’t play around
with those racial jokes no more. If I’m going to be here and learn, if I’m
going to accept different cultures and different styles, then you all gotta be
at least a little respective and acceptive to what I bring. – ERIC
Stephen had to defend himself as a Mexican-American soon after he
started at the University of Texas. He had worked hard to get there, and he
knew he could handle the academics. But he discovered that some people
had different opinions.
» There are students here from across the country, across the world, and
across this huge state, who aren’t necessarily going to respect you for
who you are. Some people are going to assume that you are here because
of affirmative action, that your merit doesn’t warrant you to be in this
position. Do incoming students have the support and the resources to
withstand an experience like that? – STEPHEN
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WHO ARE YOU NOW? 93
tried not to judge people he met whose lives were very different from his.
» Being around people that are openly gay, it shocked the heck out of me.
But if you come to college with a closed mind, you’re not going to get
very far. College is a place for you to grow, not just academically. You grow
socially, you grow emotionally, you grow spiritually. You can’t come to
college and not try to be receptive to everything else that’s going on
around you. You don’t have to do what other people are doing, you just
tolerate what people do. – ERIC
Many students feel shy at the idea of making friends with people who
seem to have little in common with them. At his largely Mormon university in Utah, Mike kept to himself at first. But he began to enjoy seeing
how people acted in this place whose customs were so different from his
» Back home, our parties go till about two or three in the morning, and
there’s drinking, smoking, fighting, all of the above! Here, parties end at
twelve, and no drinking. The way people move is very different, like they’re
dancing sometimes with an off-beat. You don’t see break-dancing where
I’m from. All that is kind of interesting to me. – MIKE
Your college experiences—from courses to late-night discussions—
might cause you to rethink your own beliefs or opinions.Although Stephen
deeply identified with his church community in high school, he found
his ideas about religion shifting during his college years. He still considers
himself a Christian, but he rejects the political groups that often claim
» I know what I believe in strongly, but I don’t feel like church is a place
where I can be me in the best of ways. My mom always said, “You can do
anything you want during the week, but come Sunday morning, you give
your time to God.” And that’s something I strongly believed in. But it’s
hard for me to identify with a community that uses hate in any kind of way.
It’s hard. – STEPHEN
Many people who go away to college like their new environment so
much that they want to stay in the area after graduation. John likes to joke
every semester, half my classes were this way. Basically, I just had to get
a A on their test so they’ll know that I’m not a clown. – RAJA
As Raja discovered, your good academic performance in school can
help you push back against the prejudices that others hold about you.
But the law is also on your side. If you feel you have experienced discrimination on campus—whether in class, the dining hall, or your residence—
you have the right to bring it to the attention of someone in charge.
Every college has a non-discrimination policy as well as a dean or other
official whose job is to address and resolve such issues and complaints.
When you bring them to light, you are helping the college move forward.
Slurs and derogatory or discriminatory language about anyone are not
acceptable in a learning environment.
Stay open to the new things you see.
Even as he experienced the problems of looking and acting different, Raja
also enjoyed standing out from the crowd. He began to notice variety of
all kinds among his fellow students.
» My campus has got 30,000 people on it, so when you’re walking to class,
you’re walking within five, six thousand people. Some sense inside of you
wants to be different from others. And you are different—everybody’s
different, no matter where you’re from. – RAJA
Part of his education, he realized, was to explore the mix of people
around him, discovering who they were and making a place for himself
at college. If he changed along the way, that was also a way of growing.
» If you’re gonna go to any school, you just have to have an open mind about
where you’re going. You can’t go in there thinking, “What if they don’t like
me?” A bunch of “what ifs” is going to end up in nothing. You’ll always find
a group of people that have your same interests, that are there to learn
and to have fun and enjoy it, just like you. That’s the biggest thing to get
over. – RAJA
You can learn a lot by getting to know people whose experiences do
not match yours. Raised in a churchgoing African-American family, Eric
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WHO ARE YOU NOW? 95
Niema went home to Oakland for her first winter break, and she felt
right away how much she had changed.
» You think, “Oh, when I come back I won’t be that different.” But so many
different experiences happen in college, and you do grow up a lot. By the
first week back home, I missed college! I was sending emails and calling
and facebooking people, “Oh, I miss you with all my life! I can’t wait to get
back home!” People get mad: “Did you just call Evanston home?!” Well,
that’s where my life is, that’s where all my friends are right now—yeah,
Evanston’s home! – niema
Niema is describing the dilemma that almost all college students must
deal with—resolving who they are now, in relation to the folks back home.
As you walk that bridge, you find a new self is emerging, more interesting
than ever. In the next chapter, students talk of how they stayed connected
to the people and places they came from, while allowing new growth
and changes to take place.
about his “redneck” rural background, but he realizes how much college
has changed his preferences.
» Now my personal preference is to live in a larger urban environment.
That’s just where I feel more comfortable—to be out in the country for two
days drives me insane! I spent the afternoon in Indianapolis at museums
and walking around town, just to give me something to do, just to give my
mind a break, something to process, rather than just watching the horses
running across outside the window as my nephew takes a nap. – JOHN
Milenny plans to eventually return to New York City, but first she
wants to see more of the world.
» For me, going away was more of a learning experience than probably
almost everything I learned in college. You learn more about life than
I feel like if I had to encourage a person to go to college I would tell
her to leave [home.] It makes you reflect on your experiences here when
you come back. I remember coming back and just seeing everything so
differently. – MILENNY
From now on, you’ll move in and out of different roles and
Staying true to yourself will sometimes mean changing, but it also includes
remembering your roots.Your college education makes you something of
a “shape-shifter”—you know what the old settings call for, as well as the
new ones.You’ll be equipped to move in and out of different cultures all
the time—a rare gift.
In a college where nobody else dressed like him, Eric tried to fit in but
still hold on to his own style.
» I had never worn khakis in my life. I would come to class in saggy jeans,
with a do-rag on and a cap turned to the side and tenderloin boots. But
then I found out I could buy four pairs of khakis for what I would pay for
one jeans outfit. So now I’m mixing both of them. My earrings and my
necklace—this is me. It’s not being white, it’s not being black, it’s embracing hip-hop culture and it’s embracing another culture. – ERIC
94 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
BUILDING MY RESUME 97
Have you worked at an internship or job? Write the details here.
Company or Organization Dates Your Activities/Position Your Supervisor
Your positive experiences on the job can turn into good recommendations
later. When you leave any position, ask your supervisor if you can give their
name when you are applying for future opportunities (in work or further
What skills and interests have you developed? List them here:
BUILDING MY RESUME
When the time comes, your college’s career services office can help you
format your resume.To start, however, you will need a record of your
experiences and accomplishments. Use this worksheet to write down
(and update) what you do each term.
Have you belonged to any student organizations? List them here, along
with any positions you held or projects you participated in.
Organization Dates Your Activities/Position
Have you been involved in any community organizations or volunteer
work? List them here.
Organization Dates Your Activities/Position Your Supervisor
96 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
Other Interests: .
Reaching Back Home
Will your family and friends change, too?
When she was in high school, Milenny Then argued with
her parents about her plan to leave their Dominican neighborhood in New York City and go away to college in Massachusetts.
» I was tired of being home, and my mother wanted to keep me in the house.
Finally I said, “All right, then, I’m not coming back till I graduate, and you’ll
see that I’m not crazy.” – MILENNY
Milenny did come back home often, once she was in college, but she
also kept branching out into a wider world. She went to Italy to study for
the spring semester of her junior year. After graduation, she was accepted
into the Teach for America program in Atlanta, Georgia. On visits home,
she frequently had to defend her choices to her large extended family and
her friends from the neighborhood.
» Now that I’m going away to Atlanta, they’re like, “That’s so far, why do you
have to leave again?” I think it’s really hard for them to accept that I’m
willing to do anything once. A lot of people don’t do those things because
of fear. But I’m young, I don’t have anything to tie me to one place right
now. – MILENNY
Even though Milenny pushed back against her family’s wishes, their
relationship has stayed strong. She knows her parents are motivated by
love for her. So while she established her independence and made plans
for her future, she kept up her close connections with family and friends.
To her surprise, people back home are changing, too.
You may be like Milenny, with a family that hovers over your shoulder.
Or you might recognize yourself in Debra, who had no one on her side
and went through the college experience alone.
98 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
REACHING BACK HOME 101
» I don’t talk to her as much, but when we do talk, it’s for very long. We instant
message each other, so there’s never a lack of communication. I never
exactly talked nonstop to my pops, but now he’s learning how to use instant
messaging, because he knows I’m always on it. He’ll tell me what book I
should be reading, because we’re into different types of books. – NIEMA
To keep her grandmother connected with what she was doing, Niema
once sent an envelope of clippings from her campus newspaper.
» And she leaves this phone message: “Pumpkin, it’s Granny! I got your
articles, I’m just so proud of you in college! Okay, have fun studying! Goodbye!” She didn’t even mind that I couldn’t talk to her, so that was really
reassuring. – NIEMA
If your family members do not reach out to connect with you, they
may need some encouragement.You could supply them with stamped
envelopes and address labels with your college address, for example, or give
them a reminder sheet to post on the fridge, with your phone number
and the best times for them to call. (See the example at the end of this
chapter.) If you wish you heard from home more, say so.
» Sometimes you just have to tell your parents, “You’re not calling enough.”
I think people have pride issues. But sometimes you do need your parents
to call you. If I get in a bad mood I don’t want to talk to anybody but my
mommy. – NIEMA
You don’t have to lose friends who didn’t go to college.
When you choose college, you may be leaving behind friends whose lives
will go in another direction. But those old relationships do not have to
end.They can even lend you support.
» None of my friends are in college right now, but they all like that I am.
They’re, like, “Oh, there’s our college girl!” – HAZEL
» I’ve been friends with the same person since I was in first grade, and I still
talk to him. He dropped out of high school in tenth grade, and he has a child
now. When I’m at home, he’s telling me, “Keep doing what you’re doing so
you don’t have to struggle like this.” So in a way that’s a support. – NIEMA
» I was the adult in my house. There was no one in my life who was telling
me, “You can do this, you are capable of doing this.” – DEBRA
Wherever you fit on this spectrum, your relationships with the people
back home will no doubt shift in many ways during your college years. In
this chapter, students describe how such changes—even though they might
not be easy—can have a positive effect on all of you.
Accept your parents for who they are.
As you learn all kinds of new things in college, it’s normal to start evaluating or criticizing the attitudes of the family you came from. But at a certain
point, you may also recognize that the older generation is unlikely to
“grow out of” long-held values or habits.
» I think my family has changed a lot since I went to college. They’re more
open-minded now, they’re more accepting of what I do, and they have more
knowledge than before. But for the most part, they haven’t changed in the
way they want me to be, they don’t want me to go out, they don’t want me
to go far. That’s how they were raised and how their parents were, and
they’re just never going to change. – MILENNY
Milenny didn’t like it when her parents insisted on calling her every
single day throughout her college years. But eventually she accepted that
their need to check on her well-being could not be changed.
» My mother would get upset because I wouldn’t tell her stories about my day.
There was nothing to say! I ate, I went to class, I did regular things. Same
thing as yesterday! Some of my relatives spoke to her and said, “She has
a lot of work, she’s going to be rude to you because she’s stressed, so you
should leave her alone.” So she tried to stop, but it didn’t work. – MILENNY
Find ways to keep in touch with home that work for you.
Niema is very close to her mother, but she doesn’t have time for the daily
phone calls they too used to have. In her first year at college, she found
other ways to stay in steady contact with her parents.
100 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
REACHING BACK HOME 103
anything like that. I can’t get into anything really in depth, like politics and
religion. My family would be sitting there going, “Huh?” – JOHN
» I’m different from everybody in my family, in every single way. I know they
can’t relate to me and they don’t know what I’m going through. It makes me
angry with them. It’s like, “Oh I can’t talk to nobody in this house!” – AILEEN
Your parents might want to talk about the time and money your
college education requires, more than about what you are learning.
» I never have talked to them about what I actually am doing or what I’m
actually trying to do in college. I just tell them I want to be a lawyer. This
is the one question they always ask me: “How long is it going to take you?”
I tell them eight years, and that’s it. End of conversation. – AILEEN
Keep talking to your family about college, even if it seems like
they can’t relate.
At times, you may conclude those at home cannot possibly understand
your experiences at college. But tell them whatever you can.You are making
an important emotional connection when you talk to them about your
» My twin sister seems to understand me more than anybody else, because
she really listens. But does she understand what it’s like for me to have to
get up at seven forty-five, be in class by nine, go through my full day, and still
be up till one or two in the morning getting my homework done? No. — JOHN
» It makes my mother sad in a way, because her daughter can’t come talk
to her. But she’s really happy that I can talk to [my supervisors] at work!
So instead of asking her for advice, I explain to my mother the things that
they tell me. – AILEEN
You could find that people at home connect in different ways to what
you’re learning. For example, Naixing likes to tell his parents some things
about his Asian studies class, but not everything.
» I do not feel comfortable sharing with my family the negative experiences
that Asian Americans went through in the United States. I only share the
On their breaks from school, Niema and Raja still connect easily with
» It’s good to have these newfound experiences that you can share with
them. Certain things that I study, they have no idea what I’m talking about,
and it’s just like, “Uh, take that away from me!” But I discuss poetry with
certain people who are into poetry. And they tell me all the things that I’ve
been missing out on in the neighborhood. – NIEMA
» There’s so much other problems in some of their lives, they’re not worried
about whether me coming out of college is going to affect how they’re
going to act towards me. They’re all happy for me, though, that I went
through the whole four years. Where I’m from, a lot of people think four
years is a long time to do anything. – RAJA
When Stephen sees friends from his high school football team, or
stops by to see an old teacher or coach, he still experiences a rush of
» The relationships I developed on the field were ones that you don’t find
a lot of places. It’s not the teamwork that people expect of you in engineering or business, but it’s a teamwork of something else. The guys I
played with are still my best friends, we still call each other up and hang
out. A while back, we were walking down 6th Street, and we started walking in the order that we lined up on the field. We had a great community
of teachers and people who really cared, and if I go back for homecoming
and things like that, I still make sure to go by and say hello and keep in
contact to a certain extent. – STEPHEN
It can be hard to explain your new perspectives to those who
haven’t been there.
As Milenny and Eric discovered, some of your new interests may separate
you from those back home. Expect new tensions as well as pleasures.
» There’s less for us to talk about, because my life revolves around school. And
some of the things I’m learning, they just wouldn’t understand. My parents
couldn’t tell you what sociology was about, they were never exposed to
102 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
REACHING BACK HOME 105
» When I’m doing good, my parents tell me that I encourage them. My mom
gets exams at work, too, because where she works you have to know what
you’re doing. So she’ll come home: “Look Jackie, I got 100 percent!” – JACKIE
» My mom’s bored with her job, so she’s thinking about going and taking
some classes. She says things like, “Maybe we’ll graduate at the same
time!” – NIEMA
Niema likes to visit her high school in Oakland, from which few
students go on to college.When she talks to younger people about their
possible futures, she knows that her example is giving them hope.
» A lot of people where I’m from, this is their only opportunity to find out
about college! – NIEMA
Time away gives you a new perspective on your home environment.
You may feel more critical of the place you came from, when you return
to it from college—or you may feel more understanding. Niema, for
instance, realized just how stressful her high school social life had been.
» At parties in college, I don’t have to worry about the party getting busted
up by the cops, or somebody wanting to shoot somebody for talking to
somebody else’s girlfriend. I was trying to explain to a friend back home
the freedom in going to a party and not being, like, “I wonder if that dude’s
got a gun?” And she was like, “What? Are you serious?” She couldn’t
grasp that. – NIEMA
Stephen wonders if he has the right to judge his father’s point of view.
» He’s a great guy, but his conversation is only with whoever walks into his
barbershop. He doesn’t understand the discussions of race or gay rights, the
political debates that come up on the news. It’s hard to determine if I want to
initiate the effort, or if, as a fifty-year-old man, he’s solid in what he believes
in. Do I have a right to say, “These are things you need to think about?”
He’s lived on this earth a lot longer, and his reality isn’t mine. – STEPHEN
achievements they gained, like how Chinese labor helped lay the transcontinental railroad in amazingly fast speed. – NAIXING
Sometimes you might decide not to give details about certain aspects
of your life at college. Naixing and Aileen know their parents have enormous burdens already, so they try to keep private the stress they feel.
» Sometimes when I do not do well on specific exams, I keep it a secret.
When I have too much work or pressure, I usually keep it to myself, and
also when other things are happening with my family. When my grandmother was sick, that sadness added to my pressure, and sometimes it
made me cry. I talked with my parents but they did not seem to understand. – NAIXING
» I wouldn’t talk to my family about what a class requires of me. I tell them
I’m doing good, but if I’m doing bad I won’t tell them. If I fail the first test,
I just try to do better the next time. – AILEEN
With her sisters at home, however, Aileen sometimes finds herself
having a different kind of conversation than before, about the new ideas
that she is studying.
» I talk to them more about things I learn in school, and how it does relate
to how we live or what we do, why things happen or why things shouldn’t
happen. – AILEEN
You are an inspiration to your family and friends.
One of the satisfactions of going to college is watching other people’s
lives change because they see you doing well.The pride they take in you
can turn into new ambitions for themselves.
» My older brother’s the one that told me, plain and simple, to go to college—
instead of just working nine to five every day with no advancement. He’s
thirty years old right now. And it’s a funny situation, because after two
years of me going, he finally went to college, like ten years after graduating from high school. – RAJA
104 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
REACHING BACK HOME 107
» I’m always trying to do both—be with my friends from college and friends
from my neighborhood. But when I talk to friends from the neighborhood,
or my cousin even, it’s more along the lines of “So-and-so is in jail.” It’s
not that I can’t talk about that kind of stuff, but it’s a good reminder of
“You don’t want that.” – STEPHANIE
For Eric, going home to his old neighborhood can bring news of
» I had a really good group of eight friends. When I got back this summer,
there were only two left. Two are dead, one of them got shot to death.
Three of them are fathers now. And those three plus one more are in jail.
I saw the same things, smoking weed and getting high and getting drunk.
They’re men now, 21, 22, but they’re living at home with their parents,
not working. – ERIC
Having shared that kind of history, Eric treasures his relationships with
the friends he has remaining.They still treat him like a hero, who’s going
out there for all of them.
» One time I went back, there’s five guys all sitting on the front of Dwayne’s
porch. The two guys that I knew ran up and gave me a hug and whatnot,
and they introduced me to the others and the guy goes to pass me the
joint. And my friend is like, “What? No, he don’t smoke, you can’t let him
have that!” It made me smile, the memory—I was home again. – ERIC
You might also leave people behind.
Not everyone has friends as supportive as Eric’s, and no one has time to
keep up every relationship. Some of your other friendships will probably
have to get less from you than they once did. Raja tries to see his relatives
and friends back in Cleveland, but between his job and his studies he
cannot manage to visit as often as he wishes.
» I had a lot of friends growing up and over a hundred cousins, and we used
to all hang out. I still associate with all of them, but it’s hard to find time.
You just have to live with that—everybody moves on to different roads, and
some people might be just too far down the road. You grow out of that
whole life you had when you was eighteen years old. – RAJA
Aileen’s academic studies have made her think differently about her
family and how they behave.
» I took a psychology course about human growth and development, from
the womb to your death. And it made me look at my three nephews that
live in my house in a certain way: “Oh, that’s why he does this!” It makes
me think about everybody in our house and the things they do, the things
they say. – AILEEN
Raja has developed even more respect for the values his mother and
father hold dear.
» My father’s more educated than I am, and he’s never been past high school.
He’s always taught himself, and he speaks five languages. My mother is the
same way. They always look at me like, “You’ve accomplished something,
but this is not the end. You still have to go out there and make it for yourself
and start your own family.” – RAJA
Seeing people from home can feel bittersweet.
Once Hazel went back to school, she had to cut back on her social life
with old friends.
» I used to love hanging out with my tight circle of friends. We would go out
to midnight movies, bowling, dinner, and most of it took place late at night.
Cutting that much time out of our lives hanging out together really had
an impact. I was out of the loop, and that made me sad. – HAZEL
As an older student, John also sees that his friends have different
» Most of my friends have their families already established, they’re busy
taking their kids to soccer practice or this place and that place. The ones
that I do keep up with live in different places, so I don’t see them much. – JOHN
Stephanie still hangs out sometimes with friends from her old neighborhood. But it reminds her of the growing distance that college has put
106 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
REACHING BACK HOME 109
things are changing. Niema’s relationship with her parents relaxed and
matured, for example.
» You come back and there’s like a calmness, a new layer to your relationship, because you had that space. There’s been time for your parents to
deal with the fact that you’re not a baby anymore. – NIEMA
But the changes can also make you feel uncomfortable.When Milenny
put on her new platform flip-flops to go out with her brother, he told her
to change her shoes.
» He was like, “I’m not going outside with you in those—you look like a white
girl!” And I said, “But I like them!” And he’s like, “No-no-no, Change them!”
So I was like, “Fine.” I didn’t care after a while, but at first it was hard to deal
with that. Just little things—the way I spoke, the way I dressed, they were
like, hmmm, you’re acting different, why are you acting strange? – MILENNY
Eric’s cousin felt threatened by his new vocabulary—and by his
worldview, which was less black-and-white than before.
» We went to the mall and there was this white guy who had on this do-rag
and his pants sagging. My cousin was like, “That’s such a typical white guy.
I don’t understand why he wants to be black.” I was like, “I don’t think he
wants to be black, I think he just wants to embrace the hip-hop culture. You
sound pretty biased.” He’s like, “What’s that mean?” I’m like, “Like you
have a prejudice towards people.” He’s like, “Don’t be using no big words
with me!” I was like, “That’s not a big word!” – ERIC
You will always be gaining new insight about your relationships with
the people back home, and learning new ways to connect with the people
you love. Because they provided your first sense of who you were, they
will continue to matter, even as you grow and change. It’s not easy to keep
the right balance, as Milenny says:
» It’s just been hard really dealing with them and trying to remain normal to
them and normal to myself! – MILENNY
But you can be sure it’s worth the trouble.
Hazel’s relationship with her boyfriend changed a lot when she
started college, and eventually they broke up.
» I couldn’t go and see him as much, and he totally hated it. He wanted me
to drop out of school. Now I’ve been trying to surround myself with people
who understand that this is what I want to do. And this really makes me
happy, what I’m doing. – hazel
Sad things at home may affect your path at college.
Partly because Mike went to college in order to better support his family
some day, he is always thinking about their welfare when he is away at
school. If things go wrong at home, he finds it especially difficult to be far
» Most of the time they don’t call me to tell me bad news, because they know
I’ll be wanting to leave school and go home. My sister was put in jail, and
there was nothing I could do, really. And just recently, my cousin’s granddaddy died. He used to whup me, feed me, take care of me, and I didn’t
have a chance to go home to the funeral. – MIKE
In Naixing’s Chinese family, his grandmother held the traditional
place of honor.When she fell ill during his first summer in college, his
parents were working long restaurant hours. It was a hard decision, but
Naixing dropped his English composition class to care for her.
» If I dropped the course, I could take it again another semester. But I only
have only one grandma, and I could not leave her unattended. I did not consult
my parents, because I knew that they would tell me to keep the class and
hand over the duty of taking care of my grandmother to them. – NAIXING
You might, on the other hand, have to make the hard decision to put
your education before your role at home. If this happens to you, remember that you honor your family by developing your full potential.
Going home will make you notice how you have changed and
In both good ways and hard ways, going back home will show you how
108 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
HOW (AND WHEN) TO KEEP IN TOUCH WITH ME 111
How (and when!) to keep in touch with me
My phone number(s):
My email address:
My mailing address:
Name(s) of my roommate(s):
Good times of day or week to call me:
Please don’t call me at these times:
I have final exams during this time period:
I have a winter break during this time period:
I have a spring break during this time period:
Don’t forget how much I need and miss my family!
STAYING CONNECTED WITH FAMILY
Once you know your college schedule and your contact information, fill
out the worksheet on the opposite page and ask your family to put it on
the refrigerator or near the phone.They can use it to keep in touch, to
let other people know how to reach you, to send “care packages” from
home at stressful times, or just to know a little more about your life away
Getting mail when you are away at college feels wonderful! Leave your
friends and family with labels that have your college address already written
on them, to make it easy for them to send you things. (write the address on
the lines below, or use your computer to print out the labels).
110 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
PASS IT FORWARD 113
Pass It Forward
You’ll help those who follow you
So many of the students in this book have already started
to help others follow in their footsteps to college. Niema goes
back to Oakland to talk to classes at her old high school. Stephen runs
workshops at the University of Texas that help Latino youth think about
what moves them ahead and what holds them back. John has spoken at a
conference for guidance counselors in Indiana. Milenny is going to teach
high school in Atlanta, with Teach for America. Eric works in the same
Nashville community agency that steered him to Wake Forest University.
Everyone has something to learn from you as a first-generation college student.You can teach people the unfairness of an educational system
that stacks the cards against capable and motivated students like you.You
can describe the obstacles you faced on the way to college: lack of financial support, inadequate academic preparation, and insufficient information, guidance, and encouragement. And you can show, with pride, what
you are accomplishing against the odds.
Your hard work in the next few years will result in your college
degree, and the rewards will follow. Just as important, your success will
give confidence to many others that they can succeed in college, too.
So don’t forget the many concrete ways to show the world how much
strength, determination, and intelligence you bring to your higher education. Here are just a few—you can add your own ideas to fill out the list.
• Go back to your high school and talk to students about your college
• Visit the teachers and mentors who helped you get into college.
Remind them how much it mattered that they cared about your
USEFUL RESOURCES 115
Once you are enrolled in college, you will still need to consult
outside resources to help you stay in, study effectively, pay your way, use
your summers well, graduate, and go on to further study or work. Use the
following list as a starting point from which you can track down websites
containing the information you need.
PAY I N G F O R C O LL E G E
Available in English and Spanish,The Student Guide is a comprehensive
resource on student financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling provides this
list of links to scholarships, lenders and other resources. Go to their
“Online Resources” and then click on “financial aid.”
The College Is Possible website offers “Paying for College,” an overview of
federal grants and loans; tax benefits for college students; and other federal, state and institutional programs.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators provides
information on the financial aid process for students and parents.You can
also download here an excellent document on what college students
should know about credit card use.
This free service from Monster.com allows users to search over 600,000
scholarships worth more than $1 billion.
• Invite a prospective first-generation student to visit you on campus.
That one experience can make a huge difference in whether college
seems possible to someone.
• As you finish each college year, go see your college dean or faculty
advisor to review your progress and to plan for the coming year.
Speak honestly about your struggles, share your successes, and ask
• Plan now for what might come after college.What you do in the
summer after each college year can connect you with a network
of people who will know and value you, whether you go on
to further study or into the workplace.
• Seek out people you admire who graduated from your college.
Introduce yourself and let them know you are proud to attend the
same school they did. Ask their advice on where to go with your
“I did college the hard way,” said Debra Graves, who was already a
working mother when she began her education again at a community
college. “But eventually I will get into university.”
» And my dream for my boys is that they will go straight from high school
to university. I’m most proud that, even though my sons may not recognize
it now, the things I am doing now will have a huge impact on who they
become as men. I don’t need their recognition now. I just need to see them
succeed at whatever efforts they take on. That will be enough recognition
of me. – DEBRA
114 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
USEFUL RESOURCES 117
SUCCEEDING IN COLLEGE
The College Board website offers many useful tips on how to succeed in
college. Go to www.collegeboard.com, then go to the “Students” section.
Under the heading “Plan for College,” click on “College Success” or go to
this link: www.collegeboard.com/student/plan/college-success/index.html
All kinds of practical advice for college students appears in The Ultimate College Survival Guide, fourth edition, by Janet Farrar Worthington and Ronald
T. Farrar. Lawrenceville, NJ: Peterson’s Guides, . pages, $..
A reading and study method called SQR4 (standing for “survey, question,
read, recite, rephrase, review”) is worth learning to help you do better in
your courses. It helps you “warm up your brain” for in-depth reading, identify important facts and concepts, understand how the information is related,
and retain information in your memory. Look for “SQR4” in your internet
search engine and you will find many links describing how it works.
If you find that the college you selected does not suit your needs and
goals, you can apply to transfer to a different college. Research the other
possibilities using the same resources that high school students use,
below, but this time, fill out the application for transfer students.You will
not need to retake the SAT or ACT exams, but your high school will have
to send in your high school transcript, and your college will need to submit your college transcript so far.You will also need recommendations
from college professors or deans (though not from your high school
teachers). If you are thinking of transferring, it is even more important to
work hard for good grades at your current college, and to make good
relationships with professors who might recommend you.
The College Board website has tools for finding and applying to college.
It offers a useful interactive tool called “My Organizer” that is well worth
signing up for.
If you are earning money while you are in college, you will most likely
have to file tax returns.This Internal Revenue Service website offers help
specifically for students; go to “Individuals” and then click on “Students”
for the most useful pages.
A list of counseling and financial aid sources to assist students from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, from the National Association for
College Admission Counseling. Go to their “Online Resources” and then
click on “Multicultural Resources.”
This website by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute offers a great
list of scholarships, opportunities, and youth organizations for Hispanic
and other minority students. From the home page, click on “Education
Center” and follow the link for “Educational Resources” or any others that
A comprehensive resource especially dedicated to African-American families and first-generation college students.The website includes detailed
information about preparing for college, scholarships, historically black
colleges (including virtual tours), and summer enrichment programs for
high school minority students.There’s also a free newsletter.
A college student began this website listing summer opportunities for
minority college students, and linking to other sites where you can
explore even more.
116 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
IMPORTANT DATES AND DEADLINES 119
A list of recommended websites, books and brochures from College Is
LIFE AFTER COLLEGE
This is a comprehensive online source of information on graduate
schools, sorted by subject area, geographical location, and other variables.
It also includes useful information on graduate fellowships.
Graduate school admission exams
If you plan on applying to graduate school after you get your four-year
college degree, you will have to take the Graduate Record Exams (GRE)
or another standardized entrance test in a specialized field like law (the
LSAT) , medicine (the MCAT), dentistry (DAT) or business (GMAT). For
an overview of the different requirements, go to the following websites:
Graduate school, general: Educational Testing Service (www.ets.org)
Law school: Law School Admissions Council (www.lsac.org)
Medical school:Association of American Medical Colleges
Dental school: American Dental Association (www.ada.org)
Business school: Graduate Management Admission Council
118 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
IMPORTANT DATES AND DEADLINES
Every college has a different schedule and different deadlines that you will
need to remember. Use this worksheet to gather them, then transfer them
all to your calendar.
Day to arrive at college: ___________
First day of classes:
Term 1 _______________________
Term 2 _______________________
Term 3 (if applicable) ___________
Deadline to register for courses
Term 1 _______________________
Term 2 _______________________
Term 3 (if applicable) ___________
Deadline to drop courses without penalty
Term 1 _______________________
Term 2 _______________________
Term 3 (if applicable) ___________
Tip:Write on your calendar the dates of major tests and papers due in all
Thanksgiving break begins on: ____and classes resume on: ___________
Winter break begins on: and classes resume on:
Spring break begins on: and classes resume on:
Exam period begins on: __________
120 FIRST IN THE FAMILY MY YEARLY BUDGET 121
Term 1 _______________________
Term 2 _______________________
Term 3 (if applicable) ___________
Deadline for filing your Federal taxes (both yours and those of your parent(s) are needed for financial aid, unless you are independent or your
parents do not file taxes): _________________________
Deadline for Federal Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA,
Deadline for applying for financial aid (from your college):
Deadline for CSS profile (if required by your college; see www.collegeboard.com): _________________
Deadline to apply for dormitory or other college housing for following
Graduation / Commencement day: _______________________
For summer internships or jobs
For grants and fellowships
For study abroad:
For other activities on or off campus:
From your jobs
From your parent(s) or guardian(s)
From your student loans
From your grants or scholarships
From other sources
Tuition and college fees
College room & board
College meal plan (if separate)
Rent (if living off campus)
Utilities (if living off campus)
Gasoline, oil, maintenance
(if separate from college fees)
Personal care items
NET INCOME: (Income less expenses)
MY YEARLY BUDGET
122 FIRST IN THE FAMILY THE STUDENT CONTRIBUTORS 123
The student contributors
John Berry graduated from high school in rural Indiana.
After working for several years, he entered Indiana/Purdue
University at Fort Wayne, Indiana. He hopes to go on to
graduate school and become a history professor.
Jackie Comminello began college at the University of
Colorado at Denver, where she studied for two years.Then
she transferred to the adjacent Community College of
Denver, where she is pursuing a career in dentistry.
Raja Fattah lived in Palestine during his grade school
years, then graduated from Max Hayes Vocational High School
in Cleveland, Ohio. He worked his way through Kent State
University, where he majored in justice studies.
Maly Fung attended a New York City public school for
immigrant students. On a scholarship from the Posse Foundation, she attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where she studied international relations.
Debra Graves left school in sixth grade, then completed a
high school equivalency program. She was and the mother
of several boys when she enrolled at Denver Community
College, and she plans to go on to earn her bachelors degree.
Hazel Janssen left her Denver high school before graduating. After two years in the labor market, she returned to
Emily Griffith Opportunity High School, through which she
also took community college courses at Denver Community
College. She hopes for a career in the arts.
Niema Jordan graduated from Oakland Technical Arts High
School in California.A student at Northwestern University in
Evanston, Illinois, she plans a career in journalism.
Naixing Lei arrived from China at sixteen in San Francisco, where he began learning English in high school. He
enrolled at City College of San Francisco, and will transfer
to a four-year college to prepare for a career in business.
Mike Morris grew up in rural Mississippi, where he
played football in high school. After studying for two years at
a local community college, he transferred to Brigham Young
University in Salt Lake City, Utah. He will major in recreational
management and hopes to go on to a masters degree.
Eric Polk went to high school in Nashville,Tennessee,
where he worked as a youth leader at Community Impact, a
nonprofit neighborhood organization. Now at Wake Forest
University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he belongs to
a singing group and teaches hip-hop to other students.
Karen Powless combines her college studies with the
responsibilities of marriage and children. She brings her
young son with her to Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City, where she is a leader in the Native American
Rena Priest grew up on the Lummi Indian Reservation,
near Bellingham,Washington. She attended Northwest
Indian College and Western Washington University, and is
now studying for her masters in fine arts at Sarah Lawrence
Aileen Rosario finished high school in Paterson, New
Jersey, where she is an intern at the Paterson Education Fund.
After two years at Passaic County Community College, she
transferred to Montclair State University. She hopes for a
career in law.
Stephanie Serda grew up outside Toledo, Ohio, where
after graduating from high school she enrolled at Bowling
Green State University.There she studies sport management,
works at a local YMCA, and is active with the College
Milenny Then graduated from Landmark High School
in New York City. At Wheaton College in Massachusetts, her
studies in Italian led her to spend a semester in Florence,
Italy. She graduated in 2006 and is now a member of Teach
Stephen Torres grew up and graduated from high school
in a rural area outside Austin,Texas. At the University of Texas
in Austin,Texas, he was active in the Latino Leadership Council.
124 FIRST IN THE FAMILY
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