First-Gen High School Students Feel Robbed, and They’ve Got Every Right To

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This time four years ago, I’d gotten all my college acceptances, and was weighing my options on where to place my enrollment deposit. My concerns about financial aid and entering adulthood were not unlike the concerns most students at that stage. I certainly didn’t have a pandemic, nationwide shut down, and looming recession to think about.

My heart goes out to the high school juniors and seniors whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus. Nobody could have planned for this — certainly not teenagers looking forward to college.

“This is all a bit daunting,” John, a high school junior from Walworth, Wisconsin told me. “Everything’s changing quickly and I don’t know what’ll come next.”

Like a lot of first-generation students with college in mind, John’s been thinking a lot about how these sweeping changes in higher education are going to affect him. He’s turned to college forums for answers about what to expect in the admissions process should this go on beyond the summer, and he’s in touch with the guidance counselor at his school. He’s got questions about schools going test optional, but his biggest concern has only been heightened by the pandemic: Will he have enough money to go to school?

“I’m excited for what lies ahead, but I know the path will not be easy,” he said. “I’m thinking about financial aid and loans and I still have a lot of unanswered questions.”

D’Andre Jorge, a senior from San Jose who’s been accepted at Stanford and the University of Southern California, said he’s just looking for assurances about what his first few months of college will look like. He considers himself lucky to have gotten into his dream schools as a first-generation student, but he’s worried the experience will be tainted before it even begins.

“What I’m most nervous about is not being to attend college at all when the school year begins,” he said. He knows online classes may be an option, but, “as a first-generation student, actually being on campus is a large part of the achievement itself.”

The sad reality is that a lot of first-gen students who’ve already crossed the hurdle of getting into college are going to fall through the cracks before classes start in the fall. A national survey conducted last month of nearly 500 graduating seniors, found that nearly two-thirds worried they wouldn’t be able to attend the college of their choice because of coronavirus. Many of them said they worried their families would no longer be able to afford college. Most said they’d have to part-time or take the year off altogether.

With most school districts unlikely to reopen before the end of the school year, many first-gen students are going to have to parse through financial aid offers and paperwork for admitted students without the guidance their schools can offer them. And that’s to say nothing of the pressures outside of schoolwork.

Take Karen Macias, for example, who as a high school senior in Menifee, California, is also an essential worker. She told the Hechinger Report that instead of spending her spring break touring college campuses, she took on extra shifts at Walgreens.

It’s a scary and uncertain time I’d like to offer some advice for the first-generation high school students out there who are looking on nervously to see how this will shape the next chapter of their lives:

Pay attention to how the colleges on your list are responding to the crisis

It’s very easy for narrative around college admissions to be about how to get accepted, but it’s just as important to commit to a school where you’ll feel supported. Coronavirus has led to some major upheaval in higher ed and some institutions are undoubtedly handling it better than others.

Ask yourself some questions: Which colleges are being applauded for their response to this pandemic, and which are hanging their students out to dry? Which colleges are offering resources like laptops, housing, and food to their most at-risk students?

Which colleges are going to make it out of this intact enough to see you through graduation?

Take advantage of resources you can

When you’ve had to navigate admissions on your own, it can be easy to feel like you have to shoulder any problem thrown your way on your own. But there are tools available for first-gen students, especially now that the gaps in access have been laid bare. College Greenlight has been offering a COVID-19 + College Admissions web series, and the Facebook group Empowering First-Generation College Students has been crowdsourcing all kinds of resources, and giving students a place to vent.

And before you’ve even stepped foot on campus, you should feel empowered to start asking questions. Remember, when students were being kicked out of their dorms, it was networks of students, faculty, and alumni that offered support. Reach out and start building those connections now that you need it the most.

It’s okay to mourn what’s being missed

On top of all the confusion is a real sense of loss. First-generation students are often not only the first in their families to go to college, but the first to finish high school as well. Now the option to celebrate in a cap and gown has been taken away from them, and instead high school feels like it’s going to end in disappointment and anxiety. Seniors say they feel heartbroken, and they’re compensating with plans for Facetime proms and Zoom graduations.

Many of us come from low-income households and our families are the essential workers in hospitals and grocery stores. This looming recession is poised to devastate our already struggling households — if it hasn’t already — so the real threat of this disease isn’t lost on us. Even still, the sadness you feel about your lost milestones is real. It’s okay to just stop and acknowledge that all of this sucks. I can tell you I’ve done it myself more than once these past couple weeks.

Thanks for reading,

Zipporah

Good reads:

  • “College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are,” by Nicholas Casey for the New York Times
  • “Low-income college students are counting on federal aid, but who will get it — and when?” by Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Lauren Lumpkin for the Washington Post
  • “During Covid-19, One College’s Virtual Chat Offers Hope for the Fall,” by Eric Hoover for the Chronicle of Higher Education
  • “How do you manage college online — quarantined with eight people?” by Meredith Kolodner for the Hechinger Report
  • “My College Graduation Was Canceled And I Feel Guilty Being Heartbroken About It,” by Katarina Kovac for HuffPost
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