First-generation college students are less alone than they were a decade ago.
Today, more than half of America’s undergraduate students have parents who never got bachelor’s degrees. Many campuses, including the University of California’s, have programs to empower them, such as by connecting them with mentors, academic support and financial aid.
But there’s a lot more that can be done. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down race-conscious college admissions, first-generation students are a logical group for universities to lift up. They’re more likely than the average college student to come from low-income homes and to be people of color. Despite their courage and persistence, a third drop out. About 90% of “first in their family” students from low-income homes don’t graduate on time.
One of the main challenges is a lack of understanding about what Alejandra Campoverdi describes in a new memoir as the “Trailblazer Toll”: the mental health costs of upward mobility for young people whose relatives are counting on them to succeed, all while the student is feeling further and further from their family as they climb. “It is a beautiful thing to be a First and Only, the one who disrupts deep-rooted generational patterns to become our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” she writes in the book, “First Gen.” “And it also comes at a price.”
An L.A. native and Latina who was the first in her family to cross many thresholds, Campoverdi wants to raise awareness about this toll. For her, it manifested as anxiety, panic attacks and an overwhelming guilt as she rose from a child on welfare, to an aspiring chola dating a gang member known as Spider, to a high-achieving student at the University of Southern California and Harvard, to White House aide under President Barack Obama, to an advocate for women’s health.
In a new survey she commissioned to identify the top concerns of today’s first-generation college students, 65% of respondents said they struggled with their mental health, primarily because of financial insecurity, followed by loneliness.
Her story is also an important resource for first-generation students. “My life to date has been a balancing act on a razor’s edge of paradox. In heels,” she writes.
Navigating two very different worlds felt debilitating. During a recent visit to USC, Campoverdi and I traded stories of our impostor syndrome as we each entered this intimidating new environment as undergrads, longing for the illusory safety of our gang-member ex-boyfriends. “I wanted Spider, and I wanted USC,” she wrote in her book.
She wants to be honest about the messiness of her path, which involved years of setbacks and working multiple jobs, sometimes as her family’s breadwinner. In her more recent adulthood, descriptions of her tended to highlight her successes in tidy bullet points, omitting the scars. “All of the truth was scrubbed out,” she said. The whitewashed version of her life was a disservice to young people.
Experts believe real stories such as Campoverdi’s are critical in helping youths feel seen. “It speaks to so many issues that are part of the first-gen experience that are not talked about,” said Kimberly Jones, executive vice president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, which selected the book for its national book club.
Among education leaders concerned about first-generation students, there has been a conscious effort to focus less on their weaknesses and more on their strengths. In 2017, the council helped launch National First-Generation College Celebration Day, which spotlights these students’ and graduates’ achievements every Nov. 8.
A hub of this strengths-focused approach has been UC Irvine, where in 2014 Anita Casavantes Bradford, a history and Chicano studies professor, began to develop a first-generation program that was adopted across UC campuses three years later.
“The approach we took was that first-gen students aren’t actually deficient,” she told me. She says these young people were often treated as a problem to be solved, despite their unusual bravery and work ethic. “If we start thinking about how we can leverage their strengths and also help to orient them quickly to the university, the best and the brightest students are often going to be these first-gen students.”
But just as an excessively negative picture of first-generation students can be disheartening to them, so can an overly positive one. Casavantes wanted to connect students with others who understood the nuances and contradictions of their lives.
She helped create an orientation program in which older first-generation students coach incoming ones, building on the idea that this group has crucial knowledge and skills. Because these students are often more intimidated by professors than are their peers with college-educated parents, she also worked to connect them with faculty mentors who had been first-generation college students themselves. “The No. 1 thing that will indicate whether a student is successful at a university is whether they have at least one quality relationship with a faculty member,” she said.
Other campuses have rolled out similar programs. But there are still university policies and instructional models that disadvantage first-generation students. For example, grading that hinges largely on a couple of exams can sabotage students who are “much more likely to be vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic events in their households that could cause them to miss a midterm or a final,” Casavantes noted.
As universities struggle to do right by them, it’s important for first-generation students to be comfortable with the complexity of their experiences. They’re not their prizes or their pitfalls. They’re people. As Campoverdi wrote in her book, “our greatest power is in being fully known to ourselves.”
They’re also America’s future. Our collective power lies in knowing them too.