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July 2002, Vol. 27 No. 2
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Upward Bound

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo

Leeward Community College

Maui Community College (math and science)

Windward Community College

Other Resources

Kapiʻolani Commuity College support services

UH Manoa Student Affairs

First Generation Students

Higher education is foreign territory for students whose parents never attended college

story by Ronna Bolante
graphic by Christine Joy Pratt
drawing of student walking from field

After Uilani Uwekoolani graduated from high school, the Maui resident tried to raise her young son while holding down two jobs. "I was dancing hula seven nights a week and waitressing three days a week," she says. She decided to go to Maui Community College to give her son a better life.

Van Luu’s family emigrated from Vietnam when she was 8 years old. The UH medical student is the youngest of five siblings. There was never any question that all would graduate from college. "My parents instilled in myself and my siblings the value of being well-educated—not merely to enable one to make money but rather to be an intelligent, competent individual in society," Luu says.

The transition from the Big Island’s Pahoa High School to the Manoa campus wasn’t an easy one for Myla Gumayagay. Still, she will earn her bachelor’s degree in family resources in December 2002. As much as she grumbled about them, she says her mother’s early morning checkup calls each Saturday helped. "My parents were really on my case when I first started school. They were like, ‘Don’t have a boyfriend. Study hard.’ It was endless, but it made me more motivated to study and do well in school."

Like thousands of first-generation college students in the University of Hawaii system, these women come from homes where the parents have no college experience. Nationally, first-generation students represent about one in three students who entered college in fall 2001, according to a College Board survey of 1.3 million SAT test-takers.

In Hawai‘i, they make up a much higher proportion of college students—about 41 percent. That’s significant because first-generation students face extra obstacles. "Studies show that such students are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to post-secondary access—a disadvantage that persists even after controlling for other important factors, such as educational expectations, academic preparation, family income and school and parental support in preparing for college," reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

Against the odds

Consider NCES statistics on the proportion of 1992 high school graduates judged unqualified or only marginally qualified for admission to a four-year college. Half of those whose parents have no postsecondary education fell into that category, compared with a third of those whose parents have some college and only one in six of those whose parents have a bachelor’s degree. Once in four-year institutions, first-generation students are about twice as likely to leave before their second year compared to those whose parents have bachelor’s degrees. Without college savvy parents to guide them through foreign territory, first-generation students may not know what to expect from an institution of higher learning.

Determination helps. "I think life could have been a little easier if my circumstances were different," acknowledges Luu. "Perhaps I wouldn’t have to work so hard to get to where I am today. At the same time, the experiences and hardships that I’ve endured help to shape me into who I am—to be more resilient, to know that I have the control and responsibility to decide the course of my life."

"We can be the support for the student if it’s lacking elsewhere," says Jim Mellon, director of student development at UH Hilo. A number of UH programs assist first-generation students with college preparation, financial aid, orientation, counseling and other services. The Upward Bound program—available at Maui, Leeward and Windward Community Colleges and UH Hilo—begins working with first-generation students while they are still in high school. Maui CC, for example, receives federal funds to assist about 60 students per year. Most participate in a six-week summer residential program before beginning their first year of college. They receive college-prep instruction in core courses, including English, lab science, literature and mathematics.

On the margin

"An author once said these students are on the margins of two cultures," observes Mellon. "The college environment is such a new experience. The students have trouble integrating into it and negotiating relationships on campus and at home, with family members perhaps not having much interest, awareness or support of higher education." Some parents expect children to begin earning a living once they graduate from high school; college may be viewed as an unnecessary expense. "We explain that this investment is going to pay off at the end," he says. "We can spout national and local data that show a person who has a bachelor’s, over the course of a lifetime, is going to make a lot more money than the person who doesn’t have the degree," Student Support Services at Kapi‘olani CC tries to include parents while orienting students to campus life. "We familiarize students with resources available to them. We open orientation sessions to the parents because information is very relevant to them," says Acting Director Joselyn Yoshimura. The Maui program also educates parents. Families are involved in activities such as field trips and cultural and college exploration, including a trip to O‘ahu to tour colleges.

Parents who attended college expect their children to do the same, notes Maui Director Nancy Hasenpflug. "As soon as the kids are born, the parents start saving. For some parents of first-generation students, that’s not even in their thinking." First-generation students often come from low-income households and are less aware of financial resources.

Financial assistance can be crucial. Luu says medical school leaves no time for a job, let alone a social life, so her only source of income has been financial aid and scholarships. "I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am, I feel that I just can’t afford to mess it up," she says. "I guess everything else becomes secondary. The biggest pressure for me is that fact that my parents are relying on me and that I need to succeed in order to support them."

Catching up

At UH Hilo, where an estimated two out of every three students are first-generation, "University 101" classes help explain college expectations. About 83 percent of those who use the Student Support Services program remain in school, a significantly higher persistence rate than for Hilo’s overall student population. "It shows that the program is successful," Mellon says. "With the right kind of support mechanism in place, a student who might otherwise drop out can succeed."

About 87 percent of participants in Maui’s Upward Bound program earn bachelor’s degrees, Hasenpflug adds. Because of finances, most start at community colleges and move on to four-year institutions. Uwekoolani, for example, plans to major in secondary education at Manoa or Hilo after completing her Maui CC associate’s degree.

NCES reports that first-generation students are less likely to continue on to graduate school than peers whose parents have bachelor’s or advanced degrees. In the work place, however, they acquire similar jobs and earn comparable salaries. That’s good news for Uwekoolani. She wants to teach at the high school level because that was when she "went off track" and started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and she is focused on her son’s future. One thing is certain—as the child of a college graduate, he’ll have an improved chance for academic success of his own.