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First Generation College Student Struggles to Fit In

'Getting Through Goes Way Beyond Academics'

Jordan Lovett feels a little like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit lately. She sits in the Moose Cafe at Aquinas College holding a cup of hot cocoa and reflects on the last semester.

“It was really stressful,” she said, frustration showing in her blue eyes. Her best final grade was a B.

She said that as a low-income student with no car, everything is a struggle. She has a single-room dorm and is somewhat timid about making friends. Jordan was featured last year in School News Network’s Poverty Series article.

Overcoming Obstacles, No Matter What…

I always knew I would go to college and that there was no other option for my future after high school. Funny thing was, nobody else considered it for me at all.

Kids at school would say to me, “Your parents own a pizza place? They must be rich!” I played it off at times. I never said we were rich, but I never said we weren’t. In fact, my mom dreamed out loud so much, she may have made me believe that we were! On weekends she would drag me to open houses through Chateau Estates, an upscale part of Wyoming. She would drive through and pick out homes she loved, and I always thought we were moving because she would get so excited. We never moved, though.

I don’t think I understood it then, but we were living paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t know it because it seemed like we had everything we needed, but there was never really any money for extras.

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A runner with big goals and dreams, who spent parts of her childhood homeless, she found ample support at Lee High School in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools.

“I went from Lee, a small, poor school but it was very diverse. Everyone could relate to each other in some way… Here, I feel it’s not diverse and it’s more of the upper class. It’s a little harder to relate to lots of people around here.

“At Lee, it was like family; here it’s like everyone to himself, you know?”

Now, she said, she studies all evening after classes and after her shifts working in the produce section at Family Fare, but her 3.5 grade-point average in high school and slate of advanced classes don’t seemto matter now. She said she wasn’t prepared for college expectations.

While freshman struggles are common for many students regardless of background, and Jordan said she realizes that, she doesn’t feel many of her college peers can relate.

“For some kids, I feel like their parents have so much money they don’t have to worry about the struggle so much. If you have to focus on school, have a job… you have a lot more to focus on. It’s hard to balance everything and keep your grades up.”

She’s now got a heavy slate of 18 credits: biology, math for liberal arts, inquiry and expression, history of popular music and Spanish. But she’s transferring after this semester to Grand Rapids Community College, where she can save a lot of money in pursuing a major in social work.

“I like working with kids and I want to help them get out of bad situations and to make sure overall they have a good life,” she said.

Finding Some Help

For now she’s using study tips from her boyfriend’s mother and emailing her teachers with questions, and takes part in the federally-grant funded TRiO Student Support Services, which is designed to help Aquinas meet the needs of low-income, first-generation, and/or students with disabilities.

“Currently, approximately, 46 percent of student in this category end up graduating from Aquinas, which is why this grant was so important,” said Aquinas Communications Manager Kate McAvoy. (See lower sidebar)

The TriO program provides academic tutoring and instruction across many subjects; advice and assistance in course selection; information on federal financial aid; instruction to improve financial and economic literacy; and assistance applying for and attaining financial assistance for graduate and professional school.

Aquinas staff members work with incoming students to show them what their out-of-pocket costs are really going to look like. They also discuss loan options, payment plans, how to find a job on campus, available resources and other information with students to help make their transition to Aquinas as successful as possible.
“Our staff and faculty continue to reach out to support students who struggle with these challenges as has recently happened with Jordan,” McAvoy said.

Jordan Lovett studies in her dorm room
Jordan Lovett studies in her dorm room

A Lot of ‘Jordans’ are on Campuses

Jordan’s plight is one that leaves Godfrey-Lee Superintendent David Britten conflicted. No matter how hard it is for students coming from a childhood spent in poverty to make it to college, that’s just the beginning. The challenges don’t end at the Admissions Office door. Britten knows there are a lot of “Jordans” in Godfrey-Lee, the poorest district in Kent County, and in many districts in the state. About 50 percent of Michigan students are considered economically disadvantaged.

“Many of these students end up in settings…with little or no support network. They may not feel adequate to make new connections on campus,” he said. It’s not enough to get students to college; getting through is another issue all together and it may go way beyond academics.

Many times, money is just one concern for low-income students. Much has to do with self-concept. “The biggest thing is (lacking) a sense of belonging and that couples with the ‘impostor’ syndrome, feeling of ‘I am not good enough,'” said MarcQus Wright, director of TRiO Student Support Services for Grand Valley State University.

Britten sees that come across in different ways. “They have limited resources to acquire fashionable clothing, may have weak oral communications skills, and are unfamiliar or uneasy about socializing with students on campus who might be more affluent,” he said. “They lack health care access, particularly dental, and the stress of college may lead to falling ill more frequently.”

They also have limited mobility to access jobs off campus or even to get home for a long weekend and be recharged by a visit with family.

Big Gaps Among Colleges and in Income/Achievement Levels

According to an analysis by Bridge Magazine, what low-income students achieve in college and beyond varies greatly among institutions.

Michigan State University is ranked as top school for social mobility, moving students up from low income status. “Almost one in four MSU students were low-income, they graduated at a very high rate (72 percent), and actually earned higher salaries 10 years after enrollment than their classmates from higher-income families.” Aquinas is ranked 17 of 30 Michigan schools, “At Aquinas, 52 percent of low-income students graduate within six years, slightly above average for the state,” the article states.

According to the 2015 revised edition of a Pell Institute report, a very high level of inequality exists in post-secondary education. (“Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States 45 Year Trend Report,” by The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and PennAhead Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy)

Eighty-one percent of 18- to 24-year-olds from top family incomes (earning $108,650 and above) were enrolled in post-secondary education in 2012, compared with just 45 percent of those in the bottom with families earning less than $34,16, according to the report. Because participation rates of lower income students has increased, the percentage point gap in participation between the top and bottom lessened somewhat over the 42-year period.

According to the report, “In 2013, according to Current Population Survey data, dependent individuals from families in the top family income quartile were over 8 times as likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24 as those in the bottom family income quartile (77 percent compared to 9 percent).

Six-year bachelor’s degree attainment rates for students who entered post-secondary education for the first-time in 2003-04 increased with family income, rising from 26 percent for the lowest income, to 36 percent for those in the next category, then to 46 percent for those next to the top category, and finally, to 59 percent for those with the highest income.

The Struggle to Belong — in Both Worlds

There’s also the emotional tug to return to where they feel more comfortable.

“Their primary communication is likely through cell phone or Internet access to family and friends, many of which have not experienced a post-secondary education or may not even have graduated from high school,” Britten said. “Those connections don’t always encourage the student to stay strong and do well in school. In fact, I’ve seen where they encourage the student, if she is really down about her situation, to make a different choice; one that she’s much more familiar with.”

Wright sees another side of how parents respond to students struggling. Some don’t push their children to stick with college, but others do. “It runs the spectrum. Parents are really close to their children. Some say ‘We sent you there. You are the star of the family. We need you to get that degree.'”

GVSU’s TRiO program serves about 240 first-generation, limited-income students who opt to be part of the service. It is open to the 40 percent, or about 8,900 students who at GVSU who are first-generation, limited-income students.

“Our goal is to get you to graduate,” said Wright. “We try to pull in as many students as we can.” For the class of 2015, 81 percent of students who received TRiO services graduated, he said.

Students can meet with TRiO advisers as often as they want and at least once a month to help them build a sense of culture on campus and receive support in many other areas.

Orientation session at the beginning of the year includes everything from navigating campus to the bus system. Students are also assigned peer mentors, an important relationship-building piece.

Another issue is juggling work and time management. “Our students almost all have to work,” Wright said. “The students don’t have folks who know what campus life is like. All those things people take for granted and think they will know, we don’t assume.”

‘I Want to Continue’

Jordan sometimes still reaches out to Godfrey-Lee teachers when she needs help.

“There’s been a few times when I wanted to quit because it’s so frustrating and hard, but I want to continue so I can have a better career and life when I’m older,” she said.

Jordan goes home occasionally for breaks or to do laundry, and things have gotten better than they were when Jordan was in high school. Her mother, who used to work at a dollar store, now makes more money at a factory. Her sister works both at Taco Bell and a factory and her step-brother also works at a factory. Everyone chips in, she said.

“It makes it a lot easier. One of my main goals for going to school was to help them out when I graduate. Now the weight is a lot less on my shoulders because they are doing better now,” Jordan said.


Poor Students Struggling to Graduate

Poor Students Graduate with Big Debt

Washington Post Article on First-Generation College Students

Frequently Asked Question About First Generation Students

First Generation Students

TRIO Services Cover Education from Middle School to Graduate School

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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