Can you define what "first-generation student" means to you? What makes them unique, aside from family history?

To me, “first-generation student” means tenacity, triumph, and opportunity. A first-generation student beats the odds and rewrites the ending of an otherwise perpetual cycle many students don’t believe they can get out of. Having a college degree creates opportunities that some individuals were not privileged to before. What makes the first-generation student unique is the factors of the specific path they choose, such as their school, what connections they make, and how it develops their character.

How does a first-generation student’s approach to education differ than their legacy counterparts?

Time. Legacy students have been prepared since they were young, whereas if first-generation students wait until high school to engage, data says it’s too late. It’s crucial for first-generation students to begin learning how to apply skills and experiences as early as possible. The time it takes to develop trust in oneself and others. The time it takes for students to know that we won’t give up on them, nor should they give up on themselves. That’s why every one of our Breakthrough students receives our uncompromising 12-year commitment. From middle school to high school to college through graduation, we are there every step of the way.

Why is it important for first-generation students to attend college?

Nearly two-thirds of new jobs in Central Texas require a post-secondary degree. Any form of post-secondary degree increases an individual’s lifetime earnings by 75% over those with a high school diploma. Yet, only 8% of middle school students from low-income communities in Central Texas will earn a post-secondary degree.

The value of a college degree is the increased earning potential for the person who earns it. It’s the pride and satisfaction of accomplishment felt by the student and his or her family. It’s the lasting ripple effect through an entire family and neighborhood, as friends and community members are themselves inspired to follow their own vision. It’s the impact on an entire region and economy, as educational attainment closes the opportunity gap and decreases social and economic inequity.

It's often said that first-generation students tend to be insecure about their educational path and lack the level of support that their counterparts have. Do you agree with this? If so, why do first-generation students feel less confident? What factors determine support?

In terms of support, it varies from campus to campus. The most prominent lack of confidence I see is in students speaking to professors. This can be misconstrued by first-generation students as a misconception where only “dumb” people go talk to professors, and that simply isn’t true. Across the board, every institution will likely be extremely different from where they grew up and where their previous education was obtained. For example, a student from a smaller rural high school who attends the University of Texas at Austin, more than 50,000 students, can feel lost, different, overwhelmed, and less likely to reach out for help. As students put off reaching out for help, their willingness diminishes. My job as their case manager is to teach them ways to be confident and to provide them with a boost of willingness to help themselves.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

Every student struggles in different areas, the most common struggle I see is time management. The homework load in college is a huge adjustment from what students are familiar with, and so is the amount of free time. Our studies show students with part-time jobs are more successful at time management whereas students with excessive free time seem to suffer.

The second most common struggle I see is balancing social and academic life. It’s difficult to provide oneself with both time for school work and also time for self-care and a social life. To see a student thrive on campus through finding a balance of both is always the goal I am reaching for.

First-generation students have a tendency to feel guilty for receiving higher education instead of being home to support their family. Some students have never left their hometown or their families, and college being hard enough as is, homesickness does not help.

In your experience, what are some key pieces of information that first-generation students are missing or learn later?

Key pieces of information first-generation students are missing or have less access to include: out-of-school academic opportunities, a personal advocate, and the development of non-cognitive skills. These are skills we strive to teach at Breakthrough, to ensure first-generation students are prepared for everything.

What are the factors that lead a person to pursue an education even though no one in their family has? Where does their value for education come from?

Seeing other people similar to them succeed is the biggest factor to lead a person to pursue a higher education. People can read about it all day, but speaking to a first-generation college graduate in person and meeting them in the flesh is highly motivating and special. It's important to showcase accomplished first-generation graduates thriving in the workforce to demonstrate just how successful students can be.

I strongly believe the Breakthrough Summer School Program is the center of our success. While other middle schoolers may be at Six Flags or the beach, our students are attending math and science classes (there are fun field trips too!) to ensure they receive all the attention needed to be prepared for the new school year. The value of education ultimately comes from within. With help from role models, educators, mentors, and their fellow Breakthrough students, the power of support is crucial in believing in oneself.

First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and drop-out of college. How can we help reverse this trend? When do we need to start supporting students?

We need to start supporting students as early as possible. Breakthrough begins helping students in 6th grade to give them the experiences and support necessary to achieve a vision of what is possible for him or herself.

Recently, schools no longer put students in remedial classes. Instead, they keep them in the same class as everyone else, but add an extra study course or lab for the subject. Students feel less isolated through this method while still receiving the tools to grasp the content and succeed in the class.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

Colleges benefit from first-generation student populations because they provide different backgrounds across campus. In order to become the best version of ourselves, we need to try as many different people’s shoes on as possible. The more we understand of others, the more we understand about ourselves. First-generation students provide a shoe many students have never come close to walking in, and their presence on college campuses will help students better understand the world. I think the more we understand about ourselves, the closer we get to reaching our personal goals.

How can educators ensure that they are supporting the first-generation student population before they get to college? How can educators support them in college?

Educators can ensure they are supporting first-generation students prior to college by continuing to put effort towards students at an early age. Our program at Breakthrough combines individualized, long-term case management with extended learning time for students who statistics say will not enroll in or graduate from college without significant support. We know, and the data clearly supports, that if you wait until high school to engage students, that’s too late. This is especially true for students from low-income families whose parents never attended college. That’s why, unlike other college degree-completion programs, Breakthrough begins with the right engagement at the right time.

Do you have any ideas about how to get first-generation students more involved in the academic community?

Finding a first-generation organization on campus is always a great start. Most importantly, finding any organization on campus that sparks interest or joy can be life changing. Spending time on things which fascinate oneself leads to more interest in school overall. Secondly, finding a role model. There is such a strong importance for our younger Breakthrough students to connect with the Breakthrough upperclassman on their campus to help provide guidance and support.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

Some useful resources on campus for first-generation students in Central Texas consist of TRIO programs and the ACAN (Austin College Access Network). Each college campus provides different resources to students, and it’s important for students to explore those available help centers and tutoring opportunities to help them succeed.

Constance Carmona

Program Coordinator at Breakthrough Central Texas

Constance is a published author and higher education specialist, bringing more than 10 years of experience to Breakthrough Central Texas. Currently serving as Breakthrough’s program coordinator on the college completion team, Constance takes great pride in getting to know her students personally and stopping at nothing to help them reach their full potential in college. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in psychology from St. Edward’s University, a master’s in higher education student affairs from Salem State University at Boston, and fellowships at Harvard University. During her last year in Boston, Constance worked with the Harvard College Women’s Center interns to promote equity, diversity, and the advancement of women while supporting the center’s mission to challenge, motivate, and inspire others.