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

Getting to Colby may be a triumph, but for many first-generation students it's the precursor to another set of challenges. The rigorous academics can be daunting even for the most qualified students. For Yin Zhong (Angie) Li '08, this means free time is limited and homework dominates until midnight almost every night—and sometimes until 4:30 or 5 a.m. An East Asian studies and math double major who is on the dean's list, she wrestles with math problems for hours. "I can sit there for five hours and won't be able to do even one of them,— she said. "I keep trying.— She laughs. "It's crazy.—

,In New York City Chinatown, if you don‰t get out of it you will stay there forever. I don‰t want myself to feel trapped in Chinatown like my parents,Š said Yin Zhong (Angie) Li ,08, seen here studying in her dorm room. She often works on math problems until the early hours of the morning.
Photo by Fred Field
A native of China, Li, 19, came to the United States with her family when she was 9. In her village, school stopped at the junior high level, and she says her parents made the move to Chinatown, New York, for their children's education. "[College has] always been in my mind because my parents always said I had to go to college,— she said. "It's really a natural thing.—

Natural, perhaps, but not easy. First Li had to learn English. She spent three years working in a small group with other recent immigrants and began integrating into traditional classes. But in eighth grade, she remembers, she still lacked confidence. "I didn't want to speak in class at all, and when [the teacher] would ask me a question I would just stay quiet until she asked someone else.— Over time she developed more confidence, and teachers recognized her hard work.

Li was one of 10 students from her high school selected for Posse—a foundation that identifies high-achieving students from public high schools in major cities and prepares them for the rigor of some of America's most selective colleges. Posse scholars are paired with participating schools, which give them full-tuition scholarships. Li remembers thinking, "If I don't get the scholarship there's no way I can go to a private school.— Her parents, who first worked in clothing factories putting buttons on shirts and tags into bags, were, at the time, working long hours in the family's Chinatown bakery. Asking her parents to help pay for college was not an option. "I just feel like it's another burden for them, and I don't want to burden them,— she said.

While Li didn't expect help financially, she also knew not to expect help with the college application process, which she began before she was selected for Posse. "Everything I fill out by myself and [my parents] just signed their name when they had to,— she said. This may be an extreme situation, but studies show that many first-generation college students navigate the application process alone or with the help of a college counselor—often one charged with helping hundreds of students. Still, counselors manage to make the difference for many first-generation students.
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