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

Mary Ann Marchaland also took an active role in navigating the college process. The duo began with a book of colleges and online research and got help from friends and from information sessions at the high school. Marchaland's mother told her to apply where she wanted, regardless of cost, but that didn't seem to sink in, at first. "I know that Colby was the last college she applied to, simply because it was so expensive,— said Mary Ann Marchaland. Ann Marchaland expected to attend a state university for financial reasons. "It was a shock to realize that I could afford [Colby],— she said.

But Assistant Professor of English Tilar Mazzeo, a first-generation college student, cautions against making assumptions about finances. "It's assumed that you grew up in dire poverty because you're a first-generation college student,— she said. Mazzeo's parents owned a wood stove shop in coastal Maine. "It is still possible not to have a college degree and to have a very upper-middle-class lifestyle,— she said.

Similarly, some people assume that a person's first-generation status means he or she come from a family of a lower social class, Mazzeo says. They expect that the first-generation student won't have an interest in literature or poetry, for example. The granddaughter of a lobsterman who loved Victorian poetry, Mazzeo is troubled by generalizations about economic and social status, and finds that current Colby students feel the same. "I think the thing about being assumed to being impoverished—in talking to students at Colby, that's the part that everyone resists,— she said.

Still, Marchaland's assumption that a private college like Colby would be out of reach is common among first-generation college students. Matt Rubinoff, executive director of the non-profit Center for Student Opportunity, attributes this to "lack of information and adequate counseling reaching the first-generation student during their high school years,— said Rubinoff. "We're working to dispel the idea that these [selective, private] colleges are only for the wealthy.—

Even if all students understood that significant financial aid is available, they must first have the adequate college-prep coursework and the insight to apply. "If they've found their way to Colby, they're a step ahead,— said Rubinoff.
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