First-generation students blazing new trails for their families

There’s a certain sense of apprehension, excitement and fear – all rolled into one – that comes with being the first to do something in your family. You set the tone; you set the pace. All eyes are on you as you represent generations in your quest.

Getting a college education brings enough trepidation itself without adding the burden of being the first in your family to do so. Yet year after year, students who are the first in their family to pursue a degree enroll at colleges across the world.

Called “first-generation students” by researchers, these students are blazing new trails and bringing a new dimension to their families. And they’re arriving in droves, at least at Wayland Baptist University.

According to figures compiled by the Office of Enrollment Management, more than half of the past two classes of incoming freshmen – defined as students who have never attended any college previously – consisted of first-generation students. The data is gleaned from the students’ self-provided answers on the Noel-Levitz Survey, which compiles demographic data as well as information on students’ academic, social and financial situations, their motivators and study habits. Noel-Levitz defines first-generation students as those without a parent having a college degree, allowing for students whose parents may have attended briefly. In either situation, these first-generation coeds face challenges, but they’re meeting them head-on at Wayland.

“I think it’s a positive sign that we are serving those in our area even though they’re coming from backgrounds where their parents don’t have college degrees,” said Dr. Claude Lusk, vice president for enrollment management, of the high numbers at WBU. “It just stands to reason since this is our feeder area and the number of Hale County residents with a degree is low.”

Lusk said the trend doesn’t surprise him, especially since he’s seen Wayland take a proactive approach to helping local students obtain education, specifically with programs like the Plainview Educational Partnership (PEP) and other scholarship endeavors. Revamping Wayland’s freshman orientation course, now called “Foundations of University Life,” was a big part of helping new students succeed, no matter what their background.

“This class is really helping all of our students, making a concerted effort to equip them to succeed and reducing the attrition rate,” Lusk said. “These students are making a more successful transition into college by learning time management, stress management, study skills and things that all students need.”

Rey Rodriguez, a sophomore from Plainview, is a first-generation student in the true sense; neither his father, Manuel Rodriguez, nor his mother, Rosa, ever attended college. As the fifth of six children, Rodriguez enrolled in Wayland last fall to pursue a degree in business, minoring in religion. Confined to a motorized wheelchair, Rodriguez decided to stay at home for his education since his parents would be close by to transport him. For him, the decision to attend college was never an issue.

“My parents have always told us to go to college,” Rodriguez said. “They didn’t want us to do it the hard way like they did. They’ve been successful, but it was a lot of hard work.”

Rodriguez has a strong support system in his quest for a degree. He’s had three siblings before him go to school, and he feels his parents are both supportive and important in the process. His mother, a homemaker, brings him to the campus four days a week and to other events in which he wants to participate.

Like Rey, junior Mary Daniels is the first in her family to ever attend college. A 2001 junior-year graduate of Plainview High School, Mary has set a pattern of achieving her goals, and education plays a big role in that.

“I wanted to go into the military first and let that help me pay for college, but I wasn’t able to,” she said. “I decided to pursue college, and several of my friends encouraged me to come to Wayland.”

Daniels admits the idea of college was intimidating at first and she wasn’t sure what to expect. Now, with graduation looming in December 2006, Daniels has obviously gotten over that initial fear. A criminal justice major at Wayland, she even plans to continue her education through the doctoral level, hoping for a career in counseling or with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Though she never recalled anyone really pushing college for her, Daniels finds herself in the recruiting role these days. She’s already encouraging a younger brother and sister and several cousins to pursue higher education.

Other first-generation students come from families where parents attended college but never earned a degree. In most cases, those parents tend to heavily encourage their children to pursue and complete at least their bachelor’s degrees, cognizant of the need for a degree in today’s workforce.

That’s Lauren Shipman’s story. A sophomore from Anderson who’s majoring in English, Shipman’s parents both attended some college in their younger years.

“I don’t know why they didn’t go back, and they always say they regret that,” she said. “It was just expected for me to go to school. They said if we can go, we’re going to… they are pretty determined.”

“My dad made a very good living for our family, but he’s had to work very hard for it, and he still does,” she added. “They want us to have more opportunities.”

Whitney Gardenhire has a similar testimony. Her parents both attended school but didn’t graduate.

“They’ve always encouraged me to go to college, but they didn’t push,” she said. “They always said they wished they’d finished so they would have had more opportunities… that’s why they wanted me to at least try it.”

Gardenhire, a sophomore business major from Albany, said her family has been supportive of her endeavors and she in turn is encouraging other siblings to follow in her footsteps.

“I think both of my younger brothers will love school, and I am being a Wayland recruiter for them,” she said.