The trouble with being first
College life is an adjustment for any student, but for those blazing a trail in their family, the difficulty can be even greater. New initiatives aim to help first-generation students stay the course.
By Emma Coates
As a child, Candace Moore found refuge at school.
“A lot of times, that was the only way I was able to eat,” she says. “Literally eat. There’s no food in the house. There’s nothing at home, the lights are off, the water is not working.”
Moore’s parents were both recovering from drug addictions and in and out of prison; often, they were neither physically nor emotionally available. School was an antidote to what she describes as the “chaos” at home. “I can eat, I can wash my face, I can have a social interaction with someone who is logical and makes sense.”
A gifted, inquisitive student, Moore sensed, too, that school could help her meet more than just her most basic needs.
“I knew that was my way out,” she says. “I knew, I don’t want this life that I’m in right now. My education? That is a source of freedom. It’s a source of luxury. And it’s something within my reach.”
Hannah Johnson also knows the power of education to help recover from a broken home life. After her father died when she was 2, her mother developed a drug problem. Her Richmond, Virginia-area school became her haven.
“My mother was never emotionally or physically abusive, just kind of neglectful in her parental duties,” Johnson says. “I didn’t really have anyone else, so even though I was the weird kid at school, I thrived off getting an education and learning new things and reading.”
Johnson and her mother became homeless after their Social Security benefits from her father’s death decreased when she turned 16.
“We lived off and on in motels and with other family members,” she says. “I probably moved 10 times or more my last two years of high school.”
Johnson had long harbored an ambition to attend college. “My mother only had a high school diploma, and I’d seen how far that had gotten her,” she says. “So I wanted to save myself.” She set her sights on becoming a teacher.
Moore is now in her senior year at Virginia Commonwealth University, pursuing a double major in psychology and professional science through the College of Humanities and Sciences. She is 35 years old. Though her early instincts told her that education was her path to a better life, her journey, perhaps inevitably, was not straightforward.
After graduating from Open High School in Richmond in 2000, Moore was attracted by the promise of New York and went to college in Long Island, but she had to leave after one semester because her loans did not cover her expenses. Back in Richmond, she took a full-time job to start paying off the resulting debt, but desperate to get back to school, she enrolled again, at VCU, in 2003. This time, she was working full-time, paying off her loans, studying and paying tuition out of pocket. It wasn’t sustainable.
“For a number of years, I was like, ‘Let me step back,’” Moore says. “‘Let me focus on work, because I need to survive. I need to live. I need to eat.’”
She became a part-time makeup artist for M.A.C. cosmetics and worked her way up to become an assistant manager as well as a master class teacher. But she never lost the drive to continue her education. In 2013, she cashed out her 401K and returned to VCU. She has been in school full time ever since.
Johnson, by comparison, got lucky. Her arrangement of living with a family member had been guaranteed only until she graduated from high school, and just as she was beginning to fear homelessness again, she received an invitation from VCU to join its Summer Scholars program.
Run by VCU’s Division of Strategic Enrollment Management, Summer Scholars is a five-week, live-in program designed to give first-generation students – those who are the first in their family to attend a four-year college to pursue a bachelor’s degree – a head start on their college careers. Incoming freshmen take classes, earn college credits and start building a base of friends. The program also incorporates cultural experiences, such as museum visits. The idea is that college life becomes more familiar and comfortable to this group of students, for whom it is anything but, before classes begin in earnest in the fall.
Johnson joined the program’s inaugural year, for which SEM had selected first-generation students with grades in a certain range. For in-state students like her, the cost of tuition, room and board for the program is slightly more than $4,300; for out-of-state students, it is more than $8,000.
“I looked at it and first, I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this,’” Johnson says. But thanks to a contribution from SEM, which gave every student $1,000 toward the program (students with very low expected family contributions now receive an additional $500), and scholarships of about $3,000, she could “bite the bullet,” as she puts it.
For Johnson, the housing component was key.
“I was just so happy that I could walk into a place and know that it couldn’t be taken away from me,” she says. “Yes, I’m excited to go to college, but I’m really excited that I have this opportunity where I can feel safe. Because that was the first time that I had my own bed since I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school.”
Johnson is now in her junior year at VCU and is pursuing a dual degree in history and elementary education. She gets by on loans, grants and financial aid. Summer Scholars, she says, ultimately gave her much more than a roof over her head.
“It gave me an edge going into my freshman year,” she says. “I was able to get to know the campus, get an idea of what college classes would be like, and it gave me confidence that I was capable of this level of work because, at first, I felt like an imposter.”
At Virginia Commonwealth University, one-third of first-year students are first-generation. Thankfully, not all of them have experienced the same hardships as Johnson and Moore, but in general, they face a higher-than-average number of obstacles.
And it’s not just about money – although those barriers range from lacking financial literacy and needing parental backing to secure loans to coming from households with a lower median income and being more likely to have dependents. These issues can result in students having to work more and borrow more than their peers, which can negatively impact their chances of earning a degree.
Just as tough are language and social barriers. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation students are less likely to speak English as a first language, and they often demonstrate a lower rate of college readiness in key academic areas. Family members who haven’t experienced college find it more difficult to understand the demands of college life and struggle to provide the right support or encouragement. And, as Johnson knows firsthand, there’s the feeling of just not belonging.
A 2011 report from the Higher Education Research Institute showed that first-generation students were 14 percent less likely to complete a college degree in six years than peers whose parents had at least some college experience. A report published in The Journal of Higher Education in fall 2006 found that the odds of graduating in four years were reduced for first-generation students by 51 percent. Taking the second year of higher education as an example, the same study found that first-gen students were 8.5 times more likely to drop out in this period than students whose parents had graduated from college.
“You’re the first in your family who’s looking toward graduating from college. That can be overwhelming,” says Daphne Rankin, Ph.D. (M.S.’98/H&S; Ph.D.’04/GPA), associate vice provost in VCU’s Division of Strategic Enrollment Management.
Rankin’s primary focus is on initiatives that promote the success of all students and, as a result, improve retention and graduation rates. Programs like Summer Scholars for first-gens help a vulnerable portion of the student population.
“I don’t want any students to feel like they’re an imposter; I don’t want them to feel like they’re at a disadvantage,” she says. “I want to help them be connected and have community within the university.”
RESOURCES FOR SUCCESS
As well as Summer Scholars, SEM puts on First Gen Fridays, a monthly event where first-generation students gather with faculty, staff and administrators who were also first-gen students to network and learn about resources that support student success.
SEM also administers the Altria Scholars program, which was established with a $500,000 gift from the Altria Group in 2015 to provide scholarships and mentorship opportunities to high-achieving, first-generation business and engineering students. In two years, 56 juniors and seniors have received scholarships, and 100 freshmen and sophomores have benefited from working with a progress coach, who connects them academically and socially to the university community and related resources.
Rankin would like to have more scholarship money available for Summer Scholars and other initiatives, and she would like to be able to send more students and faculty to off-campus conferences such as AL1GN (the Alliance for the Low-Income and First-Generation Narrative), which is designed to empower and connect low-income and first-generation students and the faculty who teach them. But resources are tight.
“We’ve been doing this on a shoestring,” Rankin says.
A recent $10,000 pledge from Warren Karesh, D.D.S. (D.D.S.’70/D; H.S.’72/D), has established the VCU First Generation Fund, which aims to help Rankin’s office broaden its capabilities in these areas. Karesh, an orthodontist who retired in 2004, says growing up in a small South Carolina farming town where many families did not consider college opened his eyes to the link between higher education and a “healthy, happy population that takes pride in their accomplishments.”
A video about Summer Scholars and Johnson’s story, specifically, inspired his gift.
“The result of this first-generation VCU effort will be less crime, less hopelessness found in drug abuse and a cohesive society,” Karesh says. “Hannah Johnson is an example of this narrative. It is a social imperative that we tell her story.”
Moore’s tenacity in pursuit of her education has finally paid off. In summer 2017, before her final year, she learned that she was one of a handful of students nationwide selected as a National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program Scholar. A scholarship award will cover her tuition and living expenses for the year. She will become a paid research trainee at the NIH next summer. After graduation, she will complete one year of employment at the NIH as a research trainee, another scholarship benefit. Though she still plans to apply to graduate school, her attendance will now be deferred.
A sincere believer that her past has made her the passionate, focused person she is today, Moore hopes to channel those qualities into her career as a researcher and clinician focusing on diseases and disorders that are prevalent in at-risk or underserved populations.
In VCU, Moore says she has found support, belonging and purpose; a drive for pursuing knowledge and innovation that matches her own; and professors who are as committed to their students’ success as they are to their academic fields. She has sought connection through clubs, mentoring relationships and research assistantships. She calls VCU “home.”
Though Moore did not take part in the Summer Scholars program – her 2013 enrollment at VCU came a couple of years before its creation – she is glad that others are benefiting and says it’s important that more first-generation students have easier access to higher education than she had.
“These programs, they allow people like myself to come to school and stay in school. Graduate. Fulfill our goals. Continue to engage with other students,” she says. “And in that engagement, the students are also learning from us. It’s a symbiotic relationship; we’re better together than we are apart.”
Moore adds that she has benefited from federal student support services such as TRIO, through which she attended last year’s AL1GN conference, and other achievement awards and scholarships. She has worked in a lab through the VCU Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Program, for which she received a small stipend. “But the money just doesn’t add up,” she says.
Despite the difficulties she has faced as a first-generation, low-income student, Moore argues that the presence of students like her, who offer perspectives from all different walks of life, is the best way to advance learning and growth for the entire student population. It’s already the essence of the VCU experience.
“VCU is all about diversity and ‘Let’s make it real,’” she says. “Well, to make it real, we must now look like the world in order to prepare us, not just academically but also socially, to engage with all individuals from a humanistic platform. We need that.”
That sense of diversity and openness has helped Johnson find her place, too.
“I’m in this place where I feel accepted and not weird,” she says. “I feel like no one really cares that I was homeless or that my mom was a drug addict or anything like that, because the kids here come from so many different ways of life. And for the most part, I’ve only gotten support for my experiences.”
And now Johnson is focusing on supporting others. For the past two summers, she has worked as a literacy counselor at The Summer Camp for Girls, a residential summer camp in Washington, Maine, for inner-city and rural girls ages 6 to 18 from low-income and foster homes. The camp aims to help them learn about themselves, develop vital skills and realize their intellectual potential and leadership abilities.
During the school year, she has done a lot of advocacy work for homeless students, and she is heavily involved with Camp Kesem at VCU, which supports children in the local community dealing with a parent’s cancer by providing a weeklong summer camp and yearlong peer support. Last year, she was in charge of the organization’s largest fundraiser, which raised $12,000 in three hours. Her work there, she says, has encouraged her to keep pursuing her goal of working with children “and making sure they have a space where they feel comfortable and happy.”
Johnson describes her experience at VCU as nothing less than lifechanging.
“I feel more confident about my future, and I feel able to see what I’m going to be doing in the future in terms of my career and, hopefully, if everything goes well, the rest of my life,” she says. “I see it as an opportunity for me to graduate college and get a master’s degree and do the job I love and eventually buy a house, which is something I’ve always dreamed of.”
Johnson and benefactor Karesh both hope her example will inspire others to support students like her.
“What I constantly hear is that people who live in a cycle of poverty are never able to get out of that, and it drains resources from some other people,” Johnson says. “But when you support first-generation college students, what you’re supporting is ending that cycle of poverty and allowing these students to better their lives and better the next generation – the children they have. So I think it’s really impactful. You’re not just impacting that one person and their future career, you’re impacting an entire generation and all the generations that come after.”
To learn more about the VCU First Generation Fund, contact Michael P. Andrews (M.S.’05/E), executive director of annual giving, at (804) 828-0236 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Division of Strategic Enrollment Management, contact Daphne L. Rankin, Ph.D., associate vice provost for strategic enrollment management, at (804) 827-8204 or email@example.com.