Familial tension and debt await many first-generation students

Alex Stewart
Vox Magazine

Nichole Ballard calls herself a “black sheep,” and her family agrees.

“One of my sisters posted something a while back comparing us to characters on The Breakfast Club, so I was the weird chick that ate cereal,” she says, laughing. “So yeah, they think that I’m kind of strange.”

Ballard always knew that she wasn’t going to be like her parents. Her mother, who had her at 17, stayed at home and raised five girls. Her stepfather worked in fiberglass boat repair. Neither graduated high school.
An environment like Ballard’s early years can too often dissuade students like Nichole from being the first in their family to attend college. Like her, first-generation students are often the ones in the family who love learning and being creative, yet are encouraged to get a job immediately after high school.

Researchers, educational coaches and school counselors are investigating and implementing new ways to help these students. Organizations such as I’m First and InsideTrack work with first-generation students and educators year-round to help them find the right college and develop a way to pay for it.

In many situations, first-generation students have it harder in nearly every aspect of the college process. For Ballard, there was the stress of having no idea what any of this would be like, heavy financial burdens and feelings of isolation and loneliness as she left for a new town.

As a kid, Ballard wanted to be an archaeologist or a marine biologist. Most of the time, you could find her indoors with her nose in a book. For six years, Ballard took classes at Southwestern Illinois College, a community college in her hometown of Belleville, Illinois. Luckily, a few of these credits applied when she transferred to MU.

The three and a half years she spent at MU were lonely. Although she was ready for a new, more academic-focused environment, she missed having a social network. But none of her friends had taken her path; they had chosen to work instead of attending college, just like their parents. At 26, she was several years older than most undergraduate students, and she laments never having had a “classic college experience.” Instead she lived off campus and worked at Chipotle 20 to 30 hours a week as she completed her degree in religious studies.

After years of balancing work and study, she graduated from MU in 2012. She now works at Missouri Life Media in Boonville as the custom projects editor for its three magazines.

One common characteristic of the first-generation identity, which can sometimes be a detriment to success, is a fierce sense of independence. After having come this far without the help of family, asking for support can feel like admitting defeat.

“We’re going against the grain that we’ve been taught,” Ballard says. “We have to be independent; we’re breaking a cycle. That takes a lot of determination. It’s just so easy to follow in our parents’ footsteps.”

But Dave Jarrat, vice president of marketing at InsideTrack, an organization in San Francisco that provides coaching for first-generation students, says the students who don’t seek out help are usually the ones who need it most.

“Think about the greatest sports stars you’ve ever thought of — Michael Phelps in swimming and Michael Jordan in basketball. Do they say, ‘I’m so great I don’t need coaching?’ No one coaches themselves to Olympic levels of greatness,” he says.

But part of the problem could be linked to a student or family’s lack of awareness of the resources on campus. Casandra Harper, associate professor of higher education at MU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, is studying how parents of students of color, low income or first-generation status are involved in the university experience. Although the study is young, Harper has made several observations about these groups and how schools can better serve them.

Many parents are happy and willing to listen and offer emotional support, but it becomes tricky when action needs to be taken, she says. Solving financial issues could be burdensome if a parent doesn’t know that the university has a financial aid office. Harper says colleges need to do more to communicate with parents about their options and resources.

Stephanie Gockley is a guidance counselor at Proviso Mathematics & Science Academy in Forest Park, Illinois. She says there is a lot of fear, intimidation and lack of understanding of the college admissions process for first generation families, especially concerning finances.

“When you’re poor, it’s very hard to envision not living that way,” she says. “So it’s hard to understand the concept of saving money or what it means to invest money into an education that will eventually equal itself out on top of more money in the future. They don’t understand the investment.”

For Ballard, the return on her investment is forthcoming. Thirteen years after starting her journey to a college degree, she is chained to $36,000 of debt. Now gainfully employed, she and her boyfriend have bought a house in Columbia, and Ballard has her sights set on a master’s degree, law school, possibly, or perhaps religious studies. With a world of experience now behind her, the future doesn’t seem so daunting.

Article originally published in Vox Magazine, May 2015.

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