A Long Way From Home

A Long Way From Home

First-generation college students face obstacles but find their own ways to thrive

By Ruth Jacobs | Photos by Fred Field

The odds that Victor Cabada '05 would graduate from high school—let alone college—were slim. A first-generation American of Mexican descent, Cabada was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, or, as he calls it, "the ghetto.— Thrust into the foster care system at age 12, Cabada found his comfort zone—and distinguished himself—through school activities. He joined more clubs than he can remember at Manual Arts High School, where Spanish is the first language for most students and the surrounding area is impoverished and rife with gangs and violence. He took college-prep courses and watched as classmates dropped out of school, often to help provide for their struggling families. As he saw it, he had three choices after high school. He could go to work. He could join the army. Or he could go to college. "I didn't want to go to the workforce. I'd probably suck in the army,— he said in his mild tone. So college it would be.

Though Cabada's parents didn't attend college, it was part of his consciousness at an early age. He remembers his mother, who worked in clothing factories and as a cook at a preschool, encouraging him to think about college. "She didn't want us to end up like her,— he said. Later he heard similar messages from foster parents who worked in manual labor, "jobs that strained their bodies,— as Cabada put it. He didn't know much about college, but he knew it was at the end of a path leading from the inner city.

Making it to Mayflower Hill put Cabada in a new minority. Most first-generation college students attend community colleges or public universities. But some make it to selective private colleges. According to Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (University of Virginia Press, 2005), 5.5 percent of students at its sample of "elite— private institutions are first generation. At Colby first-generation college students made up 5.4 percent of the incoming class in 2004, 10.8 percent in 2002, and somewhere in between for the last decade.

Though these elite first-generation college students do not seem to struggle as much as their peers nationwide, they bring distinct challenges with them. A study released in August by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that first-generation students do not perform as well in college classes, have more difficulty choosing a major, and are less likely to graduate than students whose parents completed a bachelor's degree. Students accepted at Colby have a high level of motivation and preparation, but compared to some of their Colby classmates, their preparation may not be as sophisticated. "They [classmates] would use words and I'd be like 'Oh crap, what'd I get myself into?'— remembers Cabada. Some first-generation students also have difficulty acclimating to a place where so many students come from high-performing secondary schools and socioeconomically advantaged families. But, often beginning with parents' messages, students like Cabada recognize college as the key to a life with more choices.
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