Of the 7.3 million undergraduate students attending four-year public and private universities in the United States, about 20 percent are first generation students, according to the New York Times. While getting a bachelor's degree is more important than ever, first generation college students face challenges in pursuing higher education.
Javen Smith, who grew up in the foster care system, said the most difficult challenge he has faced at USC is returning home to a community that does not understand the sacrifices it takes to pursue a bachelor's degree. "People can't conceptualize that you put in this time and work now so you can have the payoff later," Smith said. "So for me the hardest thing really is just breaking out of the mindset of wanting to achieve greater than what you're being presented."
The federal Trio programs for disadvantaged students define first generation college students as those whose parents have no bachelor's degree. When navigating the waters of a university, many students turn to their parents for advice. Yet first generation students, who often come from low income families, sometimes do not know who to look to for help.
At USC, first generation college students make up less than a quarter of the student body. Fourteen percent of the class of 2019 are first generation college students, which is similar to other elite schools — 15 percent at Stanford, 14 percent at Yale, 17 percent at Brown, 8 percent at Notre Dame.
And while these college students already have trouble relying on their parents for help in the classroom, a lot of first generation college students are also financially challenged. Median family income for freshmen whose parents did not attend college is is $37,565 and $99,635 for those whose parents did, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
MJ Plascencia always knew she would attend a four-year university after high school. The USC senior hails from a single mother household — her mother emigrated from Mexico to the United States to ensure MJ could pursue an education. "It took me a while to get over the feeling that I didn't belong here," Plascencia said.
To help with the transition into university life, USC does have some resources for first generation students. The First Generation College Student Parent Program supports families during USC move-in day and offers a workshop panel during Trojan Family weekend, while faculty and staff make up a First Generation College Student task force. Some say USC is not doing enough. "Sometimes I think some students fall through the cracks," Smith said.
As a fifth year PhD candidate in Industrial and Systems Engineering, Dongping Deng has navigated through years of schooling, unable to ask his parents for much help. "Because I'm from a first generation family, I do not have a very clear direction," Deng said. "I have to figure out everything by myself."
Plascencia emphasized sharing her background helps other students better understand the first generation college student experience. "I think that USC just needs to be more transparent with what is available. But I also think that it's also about educating other students," Plascencia said.
"I know there is no limit in my life and I would really like to enrich it and discover all kinds of possibilities," Deng said.