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logoPerhaps no other student experience signifies hope in the purpose of higher education more than a first-­‐generation student.   The potential for success and various forms of mobility are inextricably connected to each first-­‐generation student’s interaction with the institutional environment and can be tremendously influential on academic achievement and post-­‐degree completion.   Learning about the experiences of first-­‐generation students is essential to preparing emerging practitioners to support them.  One resource well equipped to enhance awareness of this experience is the documentary, First Generation.

First Generation, presents four first generation high school students looking to pursue college in the United States.  Some of what the film portrayed was how four young students – all living in different parts of California – made tough decisions at a young age with little support from their uninformed parents and underfunded and under resourced high schools.  At one point in the film, a statistic was presented that in low budget schools – like those the four featured students went to – on average there is one guidance counselor for every 800 students.  In many instances throughout the film, the guidance counselors and teachers were eager to reach as many students as possible, but not enough information was given, especially regarding financial aid opportunities.  All of the featured students – Soma, Dontay, Cecilia, and Jess – were products of single-­‐parent homes; they would have benefited, and eventually  did benefit, from large financial aid packages that supported their college ambitions and dreams .

dontayThe film highlights barriers these young students had to face in their journey towards college. Dontay, a youth who spent time behind bars which made him change his life around, was a promising student-­‐athlete traveling more than an hour and a half each day to school.  He had visions of attending a historically Black college or university upon graduation, but his mother could not afford an out-­‐of-­‐state tuition. They were not aware that private universities did not look at out-­‐of-­‐state versus in-­‐state students when factoring tuition, and they did not understand the financial aid process.  Dontay chose to stay in-­‐state instead and is thriving at Sacramento State, set to graduate within four years.

jessJess, a very bright girl who lived with her mother and worked for her grandmother’s diner, seemed to have a promising future.  Her grade point average in high school was a 3.6, and she was fourteenth in her class.  She was sure of college from the start but was unsure of how to pay for it and of moving away from her tight-­‐knit family.  Money troubles only seemed to worsen when her mother brought up child support from her dad and how those checks would stop coming in once she turned 18. Jess eventually went to a community college near her hometown to lessen the stress of college tuition and living away from home, and today, she is taking courses towards becoming a registered nurse.

keresomaSoma, a pacific islander who lived with his large family of nine in a two bedroom apartment through high school, had high expectations for himself with little guidance to back it up.  He wanted to apply to many big-­‐name schools but was unaware of prerequisite requirements like taking three years of science and four years of math.  He also had strong familial ties that eventually kept him close by, attending Long Beach Community College, where he is now a music engineering major.

ceciliaCecilia, who lived with a friend’s family because her father was deported to Mexico and her mother often visited him, graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA.  She was a star athlete and had her sights on attending UCLA to run track for the Bruins.  With family issues and even having to move to Tennessee with her friend’s family because of their own financial issues, she was unable to obtain her dream.  Cecilia went on to gain a full scholarship – the only one in her class to do so – to California State University Bakersfield.

While all of these young students are doing well today and did, indeed, go to college, none of them are where they wanted to be.  For students like Cecilia, her dreams were obtainable, but she had no guidance from family or even her school, even though she was part of a college search program. Adam and Jaye said they chose these four students because they were quit unique from each other but not quite unique in that there are many more high school students like them struggling to get into college today.  First Generation is chock full of valuable aspects of the student experience that often go unnoticed or ignored as potential building blocks for student success.  This documentary is an essential tool for anyone interested in higher education access and academic achievement.  Hope for the betterment of people’s lives is never lost in dedicated practitioners who value the transformative power of higher education.

Watch the First Generation Trailer

Live H.O.P.E. Give H.O.P.E.

Pamela Petrease Felder
Melinda Stellacio
Guest Contributors

About Pamela Petrease Felder

In August 2010 Dr. Pamela Petrease Felder joined the faculty of the Higher Education Program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Additionally, she served as Lecturer in the Community College Leadership Doctoral Program at Morgan State University in Maryland where she was instrumental in developing and teaching courses in mixed methods research and community college leadership and practice.  She’s also developed and taught diversity in higher education, college student retention, professional development, college student development courses.

Dr. Felder’s research explores the relationship among doctoral student belief systems (involving perceptions of peer and faculty behavior, institutional climate, and diversity practices) and doctoral students’ academic success and degree completion. Her work examines the historical societal factors shaping barriers to degree completion and students’ approach to negotiating these barriers.

About Melinda Stellaccio

Melinda Stellaccio is currently the Assistant Director of Financial Aid at University of Pennsylvania Law School. Mrs. Stellaccio holds a Masters of Education, Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.