Beating the odds: Despite challenges, first-generation students are thriving

Many students take the leap to become the first in their families to attend college every year and that’s increasingly the case at Goshen College.

The Center for First Generation Student Success estimates that 56 percent of all undergraduates are first-generation students. While Goshen College doesn’t have numbers quite that high, the first generation student count has been on the rise. In the 2020-2021 school year, 38 percent of Goshen’s undergraduates were first-generation students compared to 23 percent in 2010-2011.

With help from parents, it can still be quite a struggle for legacy students to get through college, but it’s even more daunting for first-generation students. Many of them are unaware of such things as the importance of filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), applying for scholarships and grants and registering early for classes.

Someone who understands the struggles that first-generation students face is Director of Community Engagement and Adult Outreach, Rocio Diaz.

“I didn’t go to college until after I became an employee at Goshen College,” Diaz said. “My daughters were both first-generation students, so the fact that this school is getting more first-generation students is close to my heart.”

Diaz shows that passion by providing workshops to help first-generation students and their parents learn about what they need to do to pursue a college education.

“Regardless of your ethnicity or background, first-generation students deserve to get an education. Education provides opportunities for you to have a better life. I am proof of that, and I have seen it in many other people,” she said.

Diaz said Goshen College is serving a valuable role by providing education for the growing population of Latinos — now 16 percent — in Elkhart County.

“Goshen College being in this area has opened up opportunities for Latino first-generation students. It helps very much in bettering our community,” Diaz said.

Aurora Flores Avila, a sophomore nursing major, said she knew nothing about financial aid, grants or scholarships until two months after graduating from Goshen High School. Luckily, she had someone to help guide her through the process.

“Within those two months, I learned about scholarships and FAFSA. It was intense, and it was a difficult two months,” she said.

One thing is apparent when students decide to be the first person in their families to go to college — the divide they sometimes create among the families and peers left behind.

“It’s hard for my parents to relate to me because neither of my parents went past third grade,” Avila said. “They are both factory workers and so me being in higher education was almost intimidating for them, and that I was now ‘better’ than them and it was hard for them to accept that.”

She said her relationships with her siblings were also altered because of her decision to attend college. However, this is not true for everyone, including Austin Bontrager, a junior and first-generation student.

“I personally do not feel like there is much of a divide because my family is happy for me pursuing a higher education,” Bontrager said. “With that said, there is definitely a disconnect between my family and myself. They do not understand the time and effort that has to be put in for school, so that has been something difficult to handle while trying to balance my time to make time for them.”

Goshen College first-generation students interviewed said that family members didn’t emphasize the importance of going to college to them.

“There was no emphasis on going to college growing up,” Bontrager said. “I have three older brothers and they were all high school dropouts until one of them got their GED. My parents were also dropouts, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure on pursuing a higher education.”

That said, Bontrager was determined to attend college and put himself in a better situation than his parents.

“I wanted more out of life than to end up at one of the factories,” Bontrager said. “Sometimes my parents struggled with money and I want to put myself in the best position to succeed, so that I do not have to worry about putting food on the table or how bills are going to be paid.”

While many first-generation students at Goshen College feel they are sometimes at a disadvantage compared with legacy students, that is not true for all of them.

First-year student Reese Willis said, “Goshen did not do anything extra to help me, but they treated me as an equal with the same respect as other students including second- and third-generation students. I feel as if it was an even playing field coming into college.”

Goshen College has put many measures in place to make sure that the adjustment to collegiate learning is as comfortable as possible for incoming first-generation students.

Professor of Education, Director of Secondary Education and Core Director Suzanne Ehst said, “A lot of people whose parents went to college have a different level of understanding of what to expect from their classes, and what they need to study. We provide support from the Academic Success Center for those who might not have those resources from their parents.”

Goshen College also helps first-generation college students in how they train staff.

“We continue to educate faculty as well to remind them that not everybody who comes into Goshen College has parents who helped them prepare for the transition to college,” Ehst said. “Those of us who work with first-year students try to be very aware of some of the gaps in knowledge and understanding of higher education that some of those students might have.”

As more students break from previous generations and become the first person in their families to pursue higher education, Goshen College is doing what it can to help these students overcome the extra obstacles they face compared to legacy students.

“For the first time next year, we are having a longer orientation for first-year students,” Ehst said. “This is a way to help everybody have a smoother transition into college, and make sure that when classes start they know what their resources are and how to access them.”

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Written by Gabe Kermode, Staff Writer

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