Firsts in the family pave the way to higher education

Dec. 19, 2002, midnight | By Sreela Namboodiri | 18 years, 1 month ago

Nguyen, like other college-bound Blazers, has determination and self-discipline. But Nguyen lacks the financial support or the experience of parents that can simplify the difficult college application process, because when Nguyen goes to college, she'll be the first in her family to do so.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1999, 82 percent of students whose parents held a bachelor's degree or higher attended college. However, that figure drops to 54 percent for students whose parents completed only high school and 36 percent for students whose parents did not complete high school.

A better life

Senior Diana Aviles' family moved from her native Nicaragua to the U.S. when she was two years old in order to escape oppression from the rising communist party and to find a stable life that offered better opportunities for children.

Aviles has high hopes for her future, including a college education. She plans to attend the University of Maryland and become a certified public accountant. "I believe in myself; I can be a better person," she says. "And college is the way to get there."

Indeed, students and parents alike agree that a college education serves as a foundation for the future. David Rice, assistant director of the Upward Bound program for potential first-generation college students and students from low-income families, says that education is universally the means to a reasonable living. "Folks who are in school want a chance to have a decent life. They want to earn a decent wage," he says. "Point blank: Education is the key to that."

Facing the pressure

For many students, the goal of attending college is much more difficult than simply filling out an application. Spanish teacher Cindy Villavicencio, herself a first- generation college student, says students may feel overwhelmed as they try to obtain financial aid and find mentors to help them through the college process. "These kids have to have self-discipline, motivation and self-sufficiency," says Villavicencio.

Many students prepare for college by getting jobs because they understand the financial burden it may cause for their parents. "Even if [my mom] wanted, she can't pay," says senior Flor Torres. "She has to pay for rent, car, food, everything."

Through her experience, Villavicencio has learned that first-generation college students often feel pressure from their family to attend college. "Parents put all these expectations on you," she says. "They want you to be the best."

For Aviles, these pressures are a driving force in her decision to earn a degree. "I want to prove to them that I can do it, that I can go to college and be successful," she says.

Paving the way

Villavicencio says that the hope of becoming role models increases students' motivation and paints a clearer picture for them about their future. "[Students] become eager, knowing they are going to pave the way for future generations and make a name for their family," says Villavicencio.

Aviles is determined to set an example for her younger sister so that she too will seek a postsecondary education. Aviles' attitude toward attending college began when her older sister left high school to get married and have a baby. "I felt disappointed and just let down," recalls Aviles. "I didn't want my little sister to feel the way I did."

Not only do students like sophomore Juan Ponce become role models by setting the college standard, but they also achieve a sense of pride in their accomplishments. "I want them knowing that they raised a son that's finally the first in the family to go to college and that's educated," Ponce says.

Being the first to go to college carries more meaning for first-generation students than for those students whose parents have attended college. "They're setting the pace for their siblings and their parents are so proud of them," says Villavicencio. "It also contributes a lot to their identity: who they are and where they fit in."

Reaching for the stars

Despite the hardships and pressures that come with applying to college for first-generation students, Nguyen is certain that if she works hard, she can live out her childhood dream. "I will try my best to do what I have to do to get a degree," she says confidently.

Through furthering her knowledge, Aviles believes, she will have a bright future. She lives with the same motto every day: "More educated means success for life."

The FAFSA and the Guaranteed Access Grant give up to $9,200 annually for attendance at a Maryland college or university. Applications are in the Career Center.
For more information on financial aid possibilities for potential first-generation college students, visit the Career Center or its website at

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Sreela Namboodiri. Sreela, who is now a SENIOR, especially enjoys walking around with her feet, dancing in front of her mirror to techno, taking cold showers and playing with her imaginary bulldog, Big Mac. She hopes to one day learn how to play guitar correctly, start a … More »

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