First-generation college students face many obstacles as they step into an academic world never explored by their families. Despite the challenges they face, first-generation students throughout the metroplex are finding success in their academic pursuits and are sharing their experiences to help others in similar circumstances.
The definition of a first-generation college student varies. While some entities define it as the first person in their family to attend college, others consider an undergraduate whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree to be a first-generation college student.
“We are our parents’ retirement fund,” Albena Marfo told The Dallas Morning News. “We have that pressure of ensuring that we’re successful … it weighs a lot because other people are depending on it.”
In a study comprised of 89,000 students conducted by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, 56% of undergraduate students in the United States had parents who did not earn a bachelor’s degree. Fifty-nine percent of college students had parents who did not have a bachelor’s degree and were the first sibling in their family to attend college.
While college can be stressful for any student, being a first-generation college student brings its own unique set of circumstances. They may not know what to expect from college and cannot always turn to parents or grandparents for advice in mapping out their college path, as their loved ones have no college experience.
Gladys Macias was six months old when her parents moved to Dallas from Mexico. They never went to college but always encouraged her to do so.
Macias had been planning to get a degree since middle school, and she was determined to make it happen.
“You’re uncertain about many things. Your family has never been here before,” explained Macias. She was anxious about raising a baby and attending college after becoming pregnant at 17; however, early college classes at Dallas’ W.W. Samuell High School and dual-credit programs at Dallas College aided her. Macias also surrounded herself with friends who pushed her never to give up.
Macias earned an urban agriculture degree from UNT Dallas in May. She is confident she can help her younger siblings and children manage college.
“I’m making it a little easier because I’ve already been down that route,” she said. “I’ve been down that path. It feels good to know that I can advise them.”
Due to financial constraints, many first-generation college students do not have the luxury of being “just a student” but must work to support themselves and sometimes their families.
Albena Marfo’s mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana, placed a high value on education but could not pursue a college degree herself. The single mother of two worked two jobs and quit pursuing her own college goals to provide for her daughters.
Marfo took things a step further during her first year at SMU. To find support from other first-year students, she founded SMU’s First-Generation Association, a campus organization providing community and connecting students in similar circumstances. It is just one facet of the university’s First-Generation Initiative, a program that helps students navigate the complexities of college.
Marfo worked several jobs simultaneously while attending college, including work as a research assistant, a tech lab assistant, a peer counselor, a residential assistant, and a student ambassador for the university.
As far as how she was able to make her dreams come true, Marfo said, “I don’t know where I found the energy. I was pushing myself so hard; I was just looking at the bigger picture.”
Marfo graduated in May from SMU with three bachelor’s degrees in sociology, health and society, and human rights.
Additionally, some students feel the added weight of family expectations. The family looks to the student as the generational shift that pulls the family out of poverty and the reference point for future generations.
Briana Morales, an SMU graduate, faced her own set of challenges. She kept going to college a secret from her family, who did not see higher education as a priority. Morales enrolled in Dallas College as an undergraduate and worked three jobs while pursuing her degree.
She described her college experience as “traumatic,” explaining that first-generation students are in “survival mode for so long.” She stayed the course and won a scholarship to SMU, earning a psychology degree in 2021 and becoming her family’s first college graduate.
While pursuing her master’s degree in counseling at SMU, Morales wants to empower other students through the First-Generation Initiative.
“Doing all the stuff that I never imagined I could do, let alone getting into grad school, sometimes it’s hard to reconcile where I came from and what I have today,” she said. “It is surreal,” she told the DMN.
While some first-year college students see higher education as providing for themselves and their families, others see it as a way out of an undesirable lifestyle.
Jacob Wells, 22, grew up with family members who struggled with addiction. He determined that college was the way out of that environment, but he did not have a support system at home to help him map out his future.
“I was scared out of my mind,” said Wells, telling the DMN he had to plan for college “without anybody to talk to [him] or tell [him] what to expect.”
Fortunately, his teachers at Ft. Worth’s Southwest High School gave him the confidence to keep pursuing his goal.
A local organization called ScholarShot helped Wells overcome financial and academic obstacles. Wells has completed his classes at UNT and will receive his journalism degree in the fall after completing his internship credit.
Although Wells could not picture himself as a college graduate, his viewpoint has changed.
“At this point, it feels like nothing can stop me,” he said.