Going First

The trials and triumphs of students who are the first in their families to go to college.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: October 20, 2014


Ricardo Sarabia, at home with his sister, received encouragement from family members to go to MSU Denver. PHOTO: Jessica Taves

DISCOVER other notable MSU Denver first-generation alumni

Ricardo Sarabia had just graduated from Aurora Central High School and was considering working construction with his brothers when his cousin convinced him to apply for a College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) scholarship at MSU Denver.

“She called me and said, ‘You should go to Metro. We can be roommates.’ Then her mom told my mom. And then my mom was like, ‘You need to go to school!’”

Sarabia, the youngest of eight kids, none of whom had seriously pursued higher education, was unconvinced. Still, he went to MSU Denver to speak with staff in the CAMP office. During that meeting, Sarabia changed his mind. The 18-year-old with a bright smile, whose parents were itinerant farm workers following the crops season to season, had an inkling that, with the support offered by CAMP, he could create a different life for himself.

Sarabia remembered thinking, “I’m going to do it. I’m just going to go for it.”

But for first-generation college students, the road from “going for it” to “getting it” — the degree — is longer and more circuitous than for students with a legacy of parental college attendance.

Almost 50 percent of today’s college students are first-generation, meaning mom and dad never attended college, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This simple characteristic has enormous implications for these young people beyond charting new familial ground. Students who break the higher education barrier in their families enroll at a serious disadvantage.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I could do it,” Sarabia said about his likelihood of graduating. “I was just this kid from Aurora, and I felt like everybody here was a super-smart genius and all had 4.0s.”

This kind of tentativeness bears out in outcomes. First-generation students earn their diplomas at a rate of 50 percent in six years compared with 64 percent for second-, third- or fourth-generation students.

The reasons for this are many: balancing school and work; the overwhelming red tape associated with federal financial aid; insufficient advising or not seeking advising in the first place. First-generation students may be underprepared if their K-12 years didn’t equip them properly for college-level work. Their families may value hard work over education or need their students’ incomes. Anything can derail a student who doesn’t feel like he belongs in the first place.
“I took a lot of crap from my brothers,” Sarabia said. “They would tell me, ‘You need to get a job and put school on the back burner.’ I’d want to talk to them about the things I was learning. I got the feeling that they thought, ‘Why is he talking again? Why is he flapping his gums?’

A Magnet for First-generation Students

MSU Denver educates its share of first-generation students, given its modified open-enrollment policy, affordable tuition and commitment to serving Colorado’s diverse population. (The University has set a goal of achieving 25 percent Latino enrollment by 2018 to achieve federal Hispanic Serving Institution status.) Though not every state school tracks or defines first-generation students identically, it appears as if MSU Denver has the largest number of first-generation undergraduates in Colorado: 6,737 as of spring semester 2014. About 32 percent of the student body self-identifies as first-generation compared with about 20 percent of resident undergraduates at the University of Colorado Boulder, 25 percent at Colorado State University and 32 percent (or about 3,250 students) at the University of Colorado Denver, which shares the Auraria Campus with MSU Denver.

“Because of who we are and our urban location we naturally attract more first-generation students as well as students of color and low-income students, all of whom are at a greater risk for not graduating,” said MSU Denver President Stephen Jordan. “The success of these students is critical to helping us solve the ‘Colorado Paradox’ – the state’s trend of importing more college-educated people than it graduates. Ensuring that our first-generation students graduate is crucial to addressing the current lack of homegrown talent in our workforce.”

Judi Diaz Bonacquisti, associate vice president for enrollment services, pulled out a diagram with three overlapping circles. The circles show the intersections between enrolled MSU Denver students of color, lower-income Pell Grant recipients and first-generation students. The populations overlap, she said, which means many MSU Denver students are balancing the challenges of being first-generation with financial difficulties and negotiating what is still — as diverse as it is — a largely white campus.

When senior Chantal Baca started at MSU Denver, she was that perfect trifecta: Latina, low-income and first-generation. She is well aware of the barriers she’s hurdled getting to this point in her college career.

Baca cleared the first barrier with support from MSU Denver’s Excel Pre-Collegiate Program, which helps students throughout Adams County navigate college admissions no matter their college choice. Baca, 21, then enrolled at MSU Denver as part of the eight-week Summer Scholars Program, which offers students scholarships and opportunities to get a taste of college life by taking summer classes, making friends and availing themselves of support systems such as tutoring and advising. Even so, Baca was tempted to quit.

“My parents weren’t able to help me,” she said frankly. “I had to do everything myself.”

During her first two years, Baca, a speech communications major, attended school full time and worked 60 hours a week at four jobs — two on campus, night shifts at the Comfort Inn Central near the Denver Merchandise Mart, and a sales job at the discount retailer Gordmans. The pace was exhausting.

“When you are first, you have to figure out how to pay for it and where to go for books,” she said. “When students whose parents went to school enter, it’s a different experience. They aren’t aware of how much work it is. They don’t have to worry about it.”

J.R. Johnson (B.A. journalism ’14) agreed that one of the biggest obstacles is wrangling finances and other college business. Newly graduated from MSU Denver, he’s working toward an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. Johnson and his twin sister, Tiffani, who graduated in August, received a lot of encouragement and assistance
from their parents, who wished they had gone to school. It also didn’t hurt to have a sibling along for the ride.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask people for help,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of people here who want to help you. You may not get the perfect answer, but eventually you’ll find the help you need. They want you to follow whatever goal you have and check it off your list.”

Therein lies the rub. Though MSU Denver has countless lifelines — including free tutoring, advising, and a growing First Year Success program that offers paired classes, study groups and other activities — many students are reluctant to seek help or don’t know that it’s there.

Helping Students Make the Grade

Helping students make it to graduation is in the country’s economic interest. America has fallen from first in the world to 12th in four-year degree attainment among 25- to 34-year-olds. This has the Obama administration pushing states to ratchet up their graduation rates.

Because of changing demographics, schools also need non-white, non-middle-class, first-generation students to enroll — and persist — in order to stay viable. As a result, colleges that attract students who are vulnerable to dropping out are taking a hard look in their institutional mirrors, which in the long run could change the shape of higher education.
Quietly, MSU Denver has been working to transform a longstanding policy that has hamstrung countless students in the limbo of remedial classes.

In 2013, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education approved MSU Denver’s application to offer Supplemental Academic Instruction (SAI) under its revamped remedial education strategy. The move upended a decades-old policy to remediate students who are accepted at four-year institutions at community colleges.

For students in remedial classes, a disproportionate percentage of whom were students of color and first-generation, the old practice was untenable. They were not bonding with peers and faculty at their home institutions and couldn’t apply remedial course credit toward their degrees, which added additional time and costs to their higher-education investment.

Last year, MSU Denver became the only four-year institution in Colorado — and one of the few nationwide — to offer students who need very little remedial work “gateway classes” of entry-level English and math augmented by SAI labs, rather than referring them to community colleges. (MSU Denver students who score on the low end of their assessment tests still take remedial courses at the Community College of Denver.)

Thus far, results have been impressive. Generally speaking, students who received SAI passed at rates even greater than students who didn’t need SAI in the first place — outpacing those students, in some cases, by 10 or
20 percent.

The University is making strides on other fronts, too. An initiative, called the Equity Scorecard, is part of a larger state project —Equity in Excellence — to produce more students with degrees and certificates and to close college achievement gaps for students of color.

The process, which was developed by the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, had MSU Denver’s 15-member Equity Scorecard team take a deep dive into the data, separating retention and graduation rates by race and ethnicity. The result was a snapshot of students who matriculated in 2006 and what happened to them. Not surprisingly, like many other U.S. colleges and universities, MSU Denver has a degree attainment gap for its African American and Hispanic students.

Diving further, the team also looked at key programs — including Summer Scholars, advising, First Year Success and required math classes — that students encounter in their first year, an especially important time that can make or break a college career.

After all the focus groups and data mining, the Equity Scorecard team developed some general recommendations that put the responsibility for equity squarely on the shoulders of the entire MSU Denver community. The team called on departments to examine their areas for equity imbalances, engage in cultural competence training and rethink departmental websites to engage students of color. Instead of treating all students “equally,” the big takeaway is to meet student needs in ways that are culturally meaningful.

In part, the answer to achievement gaps lies in that ineffable thing called community. To get Jose or Jada or Josh or Brittany from matriculation to graduation, it takes a village. “There needs to be that critical mass,” explained Modern Languages Department Chair Lunden MacDonald, who along with Chicana/o Studies Department Chair Ramon Del Castillo, leads the Equity Scorecard project. “You need that critical mass of people who can help you through the bad days. But how do we do that? How do we let the community know this is a welcoming place?”

The first-generation students who make it are quick to acknowledge that their success was a team effort, perhaps aided by parents who saw that baccalaureate degree as the realization of a personal dream they never achieved, or faculty and staff members who recognized that a bad test score might overwhelm a kid who is working three jobs and going to school.

Sarabia, whose mother never finished elementary school and whose dad passed away in 2012, credits the CAMP office — and a lot of cheerleading on the part of his older sister Liz — with getting him through. Today, he is on pace to graduate next year, having spent his 2014 spring semester in England interning for a London community center.

“There were a lot of people counting on me,” he said of his CAMP friends. “I would come in and say, ‘I don’t know if college is for me. I don’t have the support at home.’ And they gave me the support. ‘You can do this. This is for you.’ I realized, I needed to kick ass.”