First-generation students find their way

What is it like to be the first person in your family to attend college?

What is it like to have zero guidance on applications, financial aid and classes from your parents?

What is it like to be dropped into a world so vastly different from your family’s?

For many first-generation students, these experiences are typical, expected and often overlooked.

First-generation students make up 40 percent of Framingham State’s undergraduates, according to LaDonna Bridges, associate dean of academic success.

These students are defined by FSU as people whose parents don’t possess a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution, but the definition differs for many, said Bridges.

First-generation students often have trouble adapting culturally to college. They have a different set of responsibilities than their peers. Many can’t turn to their parents for advice, and have to figure out their college-related problems on their own, according to Bridges.

However, being first-generation has its advantages as well. These students are known for their strength, persistence and work ethic, she said.

“They typically can get a whole lot done,” said Bridges.

At FSU, first-generation students have access to Generation One, a support group, as well as PLUS, an internship program offered to first-generation, low-income students.

This week, The Gatepost is featuring the stories of four first-generation college students and their lives at FSU.


Teo’s rocky start

Teofilo Barbalho’s first day at his former school, UMass Dartmouth, certainly did not go as planned.

After moving in with the help of his high school friend and her mother, who drove Barbalho the hour and 15 minutes from his hometown of Framingham to school, and settling into his dorm with a disagreeable roommate, Barbalho learned he would not be able to attend his classes.

There was a hold on his account for $18,000.

“I was like, ‘18 grand? What do you mean?’ and they were like, ‘You didn’t fill out a FAFSA.’ I said, ‘What’s a FAFSA?’” said Barbalho.

Because Barbalho is a first-generation student, he said he lacked basic information, such as what a FAFSA is.

He added, “Something small like that, I didn’t even know.”

After three days of being bounced from office to office, a man from Student Affairs finally decided to give Barbalho a break.

“It was just red tape for three days straight,” said Barbalho. “On the third day, a Friday, this man just said, ‘You know what? You applied for the FAFSA and it’s going to take a couple days but I’m still going to take out the hold. Technically, I’m not supposed to do that, but you’re going to be able to go to classes next week.’”

Barbalho said, “I almost cried in front of him.”

Three years and one transfer later, Barbalho is now a senior criminology major at Framingham State.

Barbalho decided to transfer to Framingham State after touring the university, and learning about the criminology program, which offered more opportunities for internships than UMass Dartmouth.

His parents, who immigrated from Brazil, had “ingrained” the idea of college into his brain his whole life, said Barbalho.

“It was always expected of me to go to college,” he said. “But getting there, it was something I had to figure out.”

Barbalho said he owes his successful college career to a program called Step Up to Excellence, a mentorship program provided by Framingham High School.

“Because of them, to be honest, that’s the reason I’m here in college now,” he said. “The three years I was part of the mentorship program, they changed my mentality. They kept pushing me. They gave me that extra push I needed at the time.”

A week before his high school graduation, Barbalho was kicked out of his parents’ home after multiple conflicts with his mother.

While they eventually made up, and he moved back home, Barbalho went through his college transition alone.

During the end of his senior year and the following summer, the mentors at the Step Up program “really held me down,” said Barbalho.

From his freshman to his junior year, Barbalho worked 40 hours a week while attending classes full time.

“All throughout college and high school, I’ve just been working, working, working,” he said. Barbalho has taken on work studies in the past at UMass Dartmouth, as well as a job with his uncles for a granite company and multiple jobs in the Natick Mall.

This semester, he was able to limit his hours between his internship and his weekend security job to 16.

Because his parents are immigrants, Barbalho said they have different expectations for him than his peers’ parents.

“I think it comes down to what immigrant parents expect out of a child, and their own expectations of how to get there … versus the realities of it,” he said.

Immigrant parents expect their children to be able to attend class, work and stay involved on campus simultaneously, he said.

“They don’t understand the amount of work that’s necessary in college. They don’t understand that sometimes balancing that out … you have to sacrifice a lot of time for it,” he said.

“Even something as small as, ‘Oh, did you do your homework?’ They don’t ask that. It’s more of, ‘You got your homework done.’ It’s just expected of you,” he said.

Barbalho has not been able to talk about issues at school with his parents since sixth grade.

“It’s just mostly because they haven’t really been through the system here, so they don’t understand,” he said. “Some of the stuff that I’m learning, especially here, is stuff that they have no idea about.”

Additionally, Barbalho said his parents don’t understand the significance behind his responsibilities and accomplishments.

Barbalho is the president of Brother to Brother, and is also participating in the Hope-In-Action project.

“They know I’m the president and they know I’m involved on campus, but sometimes they don’t realize it takes up a lot of my time,” he said. “It’s just something that they’ve personally never been through.”

Barbalho said one of the biggest disadvantages for a first-generation student is “not knowing basic information,” such as how to apply for FAFSA, pick classes and pay bills.

“Little stuff like that – it’s not as obvious to us,” he said.

Barbalho said many first-generation students go into college believing a bachelor’s degree is “their ticket out.

“We’re told all our lives, ‘You get a degree, it’s going to get you a job,’” he said. However, first-generation students aren’t always aware of the importance of networking and internships, and the resources that can guide them toward those opportunities.

Barbalho said he is glad he went through college on his own so he can be a role model for the rest of his family.

“At least for my sister now, she knows it can be done,” he said. “My younger cousins and other family, now they know it can be done and if they have any questions, they at least have somebody.”


Ezequiel’s resilience

As a freshman in high school, Ezequiel De Leon sat in English class, anxiously awaiting the results of his class election. He was running for class president.

When the loudspeaker finally crackled on, De Leon listened with his class as Josh Beauregard was announced Northbridge High’s Class of 2013 president.

Although disappointed, De Leon felt a wave of relief wash over him.

“He had the resources to do it and I didn’t,” said De Leon of his former opponent. “He had someone to give him rides after school. I didn’t have a way of getting home, so when were we supposed to meet?”

After class, De Leon’s teacher and class advisor pulled him aside and informed him that he had only lost by one vote.

“He wanted me to know that people saw me as a leader,” said De Leon. “That half of the class said that they believed in me to do it.”

Seven years later, now-senior De Leon was handed the SGA gavel and inaugurated as Framingham State’s SGA president.

“The people trusted me,” said De Leon. “Everyone who voted believes that I can represent them. They’ve given me this position to help the community. Even thinking about it now, I don’t want to fail in that. I want to make sure I hold myself to that and do the best job I can. And that’s what’s different about college and high school. I don’t need a ride home.”

Contrary to his high school experiences, De Leon feels he has not missed out on much at FSU, despite being a first-generation student.

He said, “I think that’s the best part about Framingham State. This is truly a place of opportunity.  I feel like when there’s ever been an issue of me not being able to do something because of money, there’s been someone there to say, ‘We can make this work. We can help you.’ And that’s been true for my entire time here.”

In fact, De Leon feels prepared to be a student leader as a result of being a first-generation student.

“When we came to this country, the only way we had food on the table was because of other people’s help and other people’s generosity,” he said. “I saw what a difference that makes for people when other people are there to help.”

De Leon’s family immigrated here from the Dominican Republic when he was 7, and since he didn’t know how to speak, read or write in English, he was placed in kindergarten.

He said “tough times” can instill a sense of appreciation and gratitude in someone, characteristics which can predispose a person to help others and become a leader.

As a high school student, De Leon worked 40 hours a week as a manager at his local McDonald’s.

His mother had fallen ill, and was too sick to work. It was up to De Leon to make sure rent was paid and the car wasn’t repossessed.

On an average school day, De Leon would wake up at 6 a.m., but oftentimes, he would oversleep and miss the bus.

“I’d have to wait ‘til 8:30, until my mom got home and yelled at me, and then drove me to school. So I’d miss 30 minutes of class already,” he said.

After school, De Leon always wanted to stay after and participate in the art club, or get extra help on his math homework. However, he had to catch the school bus, which would eventually drop him off for his 3 o’clock shift at McDonald’s.

After changing in the bathroom, De Leon would work until 11 p.m., when his mother would pick him up.

“Then, I’d try to do homework, but that never really happened, you know?” he said.

De Leon would finally go to bed, wake up, miss the bus, wait for his mom, arrive at school late, take the bus to work, have his mother drive him home and attempt to do homework.

Repeat.

When the time finally came to start applying to colleges, De Leon said he wasn’t as focused on college applications as his peers.

“I remember going to my friend’s house to study, and my friend Taylor and her mom would get into a fight over the status of her application. Her mom would be like, ‘You need to get this done now. It’s still not complete.’ Meanwhile, I hadn’t even started mine at all,” he said.

De Leon’s parents weren’t able to help him with his applications, and the guidance counselors at his school weren’t “really effective.”

However, De Leon was able to watch his friends complete their applications with their parents, and learn from them.

“I think I learned more from watching my friends sit down with their parents and do the FAFSA, and do their Common App, and that’s how I did mine. I never thought about that, but it’s true. I watched my friend do her FAFSA with her mom, and then I did mine.”

Additionally, De Leon wasn’t able to apply for scholarships.

“I didn’t know where to apply,” said De Leon. “I was searching national databases, but those scholarships are so … they’re national, you know?”

All the scholarships De Leon was able to find required an essay, and he didn’t believe he qualified for them.

“I know it’s no excuse, but my friends’ parents were on them like, ‘Did you apply for this scholarship? Did you apply for that?’” he said. “I was just struggling to apply.”

When De Leon finally arrived at FSU, he had big plans.

“Nothing was going to stop me,” he said. “I was going to be class president. I was going to take the world by storm because I didn’t need a ride home. No one’s parents were there. Everyone was on the same playing field. So I took it and I ran with it.”

In addition to student government, De Leon is involved with Generation One, a support group on campus for first-generation students, and Brother to Brother, a club committed to combatting FSU’s low graduation rates for people of color.

De Leon hopes to incorporate the skills he has gained as SGA president into his career in medicine after graduation.

“I hope to take a year or two off and work with a local clinic on community health programs and initiatives and gain medical experience working as a nursing assistant,” said De Leon. “I really just want to take everything I’ve learned at FSU about community development and apply it wherever I go.”

De Leon has also worked on campus as a resident assistant, a security desk attendant, an assistant for the first year’s office, a Black and Gold orientation leader and a chemistry tutor.

“I worked a lot because I needed to,” he said. “If I needed money, it wasn’t an option to ask for it at home.”

Money isn’t the only form of support De Leon has lacked during his time at FSU. Unlike his peers, De Leon isn’t able to discuss his classes with his parents, or ask for their advice.

When De Leon brought up the history class he had to take in order to fulfill a Gen Ed requirement, his mother didn’t understand why he was “wasting” his time.

“She was like, ‘That doesn’t make sense. Don’t goof around. You need to be dedicated to your studies,’” he said. “I was like, ‘I need this class to graduate.’ But she didn’t get that.”

De Leon said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with my mom about a class going poorly, just because the expectation was that you’re off at college doing really well, and they’re so proud of you, so you don’t want to change that.”

He added, “She wouldn’t get it. She wouldn’t get that chemistry is just hard, and that everybody struggles and that getting tutoring for chemistry is normal.”

De Leon said his mother doesn’t fully understand the significance of his accomplishments at FSU, either.

“My mom is just so supportive of me that anything I do is just great for her,” he said. “I don’t think she does know what student government is and what I do in student government, but she’s over-the-moon proud.”

He added, “She was so proud when I was hall council president freshman year, but … what did I do? She doesn’t know.”


Tasia’s inspiration

For Tasia Clemons, college wasn’t a priority until she met Mrs. Abbott, a sociology teacher at Amherst Regional High School.

During her junior year, Clemons took Mrs. Abbott’s sociology course and fell in love with the subject.

“I didn’t really see myself going [to college] until my junior year of high school when I met her,” said Clemons. “She was just life-changing.”

When the time came for her first test in sociology, Clemons knew she would do “horrible.

“I’m a horrible test-taker. I have no confidence in my test-taking abilities at all,” said Clemons. “So I told her, ‘Listen, I really don’t think I’ll do well on this test,’ and she was like, ‘Tasia, I’ve seen the work you’re doing, and you’re doing great. Take this test and let’s see how you do, and then we’ll work together on it to see if we can pull your grade up.’”

Ultimately, Clemons did not do well on the test. However, Mrs. Abbott kept her promise and worked with Clemons after school.

“We went over each of my answers. She asked the question on the test, and I’d answer vocally and she said, ‘Tasia, that’s the right answer. I don’t know why you’re struggling with the test,’” she said.

Clemons said Mrs. Abbott took the time to find out what the actual problem was behind her poor test scores instead of writing her off as a bad student.

“I just feel like she took the time to actually know who I was,” said Clemons. “She taught me that I’m just an overthinker with tests.”

Now, as a junior at FSU, Clemons is majoring in sociology and minoring in Spanish.

While Clemons’ parents had always wanted her to go to college, her decision to attend FSU, a school relatively far from home, was a shock.

“It’s like an hour and a half away,” said Clemons. “But to my mom, that’s three worlds away.”

For Clemons, the adjustment to college life “wasn’t too bad” because she’s “always been a busy person.” However, she said, “I did find myself talking to my mom for about three hours every day.”

During high school, Clemons was very active in extracurriculars, such as People of Color United and the School Climate Committee. That didn’t change when she came to FSU.

Her sophomore year, Clemons was a Residence Life assistant, security desk attendant, supplemental instructor, foundations peer mentor, student admissions representative and Black and Gold orientation leader.

“That was really the bulk of me paying for college,” she said. “I’m paying for everything myself.”

Clemons said because of her busy work schedule, she might have missed out on some of the typical college experiences. She added, “There’s a lot of things that I’m probably not seeing just ‘cause I’m too busy working trying to get through the rest of junior and senior year.”

Her position as an RA has always been an “important accomplishment” for her, said Clemons.

“I like helping other people find their power and their confidence,” she said. “So, that job I take really seriously and I love it.”

Clemons plans on combining her passion for sociology and helping people after she graduates. She wants to become a Residence Director, and later, a sociology professor.

“Mrs. Abbott was that teacher who pushed me, so I thought I kind of want to be that person for someone else,” she said.

As a first-generation student, Clemons feels she is uniquely prepared to help other first-generation students.

“Me being a first-generation, I can be like, ‘Oh, I went through that. I can help you with that,’” she said.

“I feel like a lot of people will doubt you, being a first-generation student,” she added.

As an RA, Clemons said she has been able to help some of her residents who are first-generation.

“They’re always like, ‘Tasia, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to do this. I feel like this is a waste of time. No one is really helping me.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I was there. I got you. I know how to navigate this. Talk to these people,’” she said.

She added being a first-generation student has “framed my personality, and it has framed how I see the world, really.”

While no one has ever told Clemons they doubt her because she is a first-generation student, she still feels people look at her differently after they learn of her background.

“With those doubts, it’s almost like I just want prove them wrong. First-generation or not, I feel like students can do what they push themselves to do,” she said.

She added, “Being a first-generation college student has really pushed me to kind of go above and beyond just because I don’t want to let myself down and I don’t want to let my parents down.”


Jackson’s stroke of luck

When Jackson Stevens was in fifth grade, he was entered into a lottery to win acceptance into Salem Academy Charter School, a college prep school.

His mother, who had only finished a year of college at Emmanuel, was motivated to enter him into the lottery by her desire to see her son receive his bachelor’s degree.

Now a junior and sociology major at Framingham State, Stevens believes he would not have made it to FSU without the school’s help.

Stevens said during his junior and senior year, he was required to take a “College 101” course, which was very similar to SAT prep courses.

“I’m lower class, so I couldn’t afford that stuff,” he said. “Going to that college prep school helped me get ready for the SATs. … I would have done much worse without it.”

In addition to the college prep course, Stevens’ class was small, with approximately 30 students. The school was also within walking distance of his home.

“I was lucky because going to a charter school, it’s a really small community and I live close to the school,” he said. “I got out at 4 every day besides Friday, and I could just stay at school and do extracurriculars and stuff like that.”

In high school, Stevens was involved with theater and student government, as well as the science team and alternative spring break trips.

While Stevens excelled at his charter school and earned a 4.0 GPA, his first year at FSU did not go as smoothly.

He started skipping classes, and his grades began to drop.

“The first year was rough because I didn’t know how to properly adjust to school,” said Stevens. “I think it would have been easier if I had someone in my life who went to school share their college experience with me.”

He added, “My family would listen but they didn’t understand it.”

After one of his professors reached out to Stevens’ foundations teacher, Christopher Gregory, he “set me straight,” said Stevens.

He added since then, his life at FSU has gone “uphill. Once I truly found my major after looking for so long, that’s when I was on the best track. I wouldn’t have found sociology without Lina Rincón and Virginia Rutter.”

Today, Stevens is involved with many different groups on campus, such as the Music Appreciation Club and Brother to Brother.

Additionally, he recently organized FSU’s Unity Walk and Hope-In-Action rally.

Stevens said because he is a first generation and working class student, he is able to view social issues in a different light.

“Growing up poor, what it was like, how it made me feel and how it makes me feel now … being able to fall back on that and remember that’s how other people feel about an identity they can’t change, whereas my socioeconomic status can always change in the future,” he said.  “I think it helps me understand issues on a deeper level.”

He added, “At one point in time, we all felt like a minority. … It might not be the same pain as other minorities, or the same struggle, but if we can just remember what it felt like to not feel welcomed and not feel like the norm, that can kind of help us understand the issues more.”

Stevens works between 16 and 20 hours a week at four different jobs on campus to help his mother pay for tuition and rent. His mother works 70 hours a week at Whole Foods and a call center.

“I already do so much on campus,” said Stevens. “If I didn’t have to work, I think I could do so much more on campus, and kind of get more of a college experience.”

Because his mother works so much, Stevens tries “not to burden her” with his problems related to courses.

“She already has enough to worry about,” he said. “She’s really supportive, so I could talk to her about it, but I don’t want to burden her with any more than she already has to do.”

According to Stevens, it’s “really important” to his mother that he finishes school, because she never had a chance to.

He said, “She worked. She never really had the time for it. She took some classes when I was younger, but that’s really hard to balance when you work so much.

“I hope one day I have money so she doesn’t have to work and can go back to school because I know that’s really important for her,” he added.

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