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

That was the case for Josh Montague, a Colby senior, co-captain of the indoor and outdoor track teams, a dean's-list physics major with a minor in computer science, a member of the popular a cappella group the Colby 8, and the first in his family to attend college. Recounting the application process, he said, "I didn't have any parental figure to go to in that respect.— Where his parents couldn't help, his rural Vermont high school could. His guidance counselor advised him on how many schools to apply to, including "reach— and "fall back— options. He applied to nine, was accepted to five, and chose Colby, where he has flourished.

,He‰s just like this little sponge,Š said Vicki Strobridge of her son, Josh Montague ‰06, a physics major. ,From the time he was small it was always ,why?‰Š Mother and son, who share a love of books, stroll through the Colby bookstore over Family Homecoming Weekend in October.
Photo by Fred Field
Montague's passion for learning bloomed at an early age. His mother, who is an avid reader, instilled in him a love of books. As he went through school, he cherished challenges. "I really loved multiplication under pressure,— he remembers. "I still really enjoy learning.— He plans to continue and is applying to some of the nation's top Ph.D. programs in physics. Support from his parents, from the beginning, kept him aiming to please, he said. "When I succeeded at anything they were always so excited and encouraging, and that continues to this day.— His friends at Colby, he says, have also served as a support system. When he had difficulty writing papers early on, his friends who excelled in English helped him through.

Administrators at Colby worry about the ability of first-generation students, namely those from low-income brackets, to find their niche on a campus where the majority of students come from families where the parents attended college and often can afford to pay full tuition. At the Preview Program, a pre-orientation orientation for first-generation college students and minority students, Coordinator of Multicultural Student Programs Joe Atkins emphasizes the importance of cultivating social bonds. He said he tells the students, "Academics is number one, but if you think you can survive just on academics, you can't.— He encourages them to get involved in clubs and organizations, which offer diverse choices for diverse interests.

But for some students, social life can be hindered by insufficient funds. "They get here, they're somewhat restricted in terms of Jan Plans they can pursue, so while classmates are going off to Senegal on the Jan Plan they can't go because it costs an additional $1300 or whatever it is, and other things like that,— said Beverage. "Kids are going off to learn to ski at Sugarloaf and they'd like to do that, but geez, they can't afford to do that.— The examples go on.

Marchaland, who mentions skiing as the one thing that limits her socially, says she's "pretty laid back— about it. "It bothers me on occasion, but not very often because I realize that that's just the way they were brought up, and I was brought up differently. And there are a lot of kids who have a lot less money than me at Colby, too. I think they're more conscious of it than I am,— she said. Those who have less money may be first-generation—or not. And you can't tell by looking at them.

While he was at Colby, only four friends knew about Cabada's teenage years in foster care, he said. He had worked hard to leave it all behind, so far away, and he didn't want it to follow him. After graduating from Colby in May, the sociology major landed an Americorps*VISTA position in Fort Kent, Maine. A rural northern-Maine community may seem worlds away from South Central LA—and couldn't be much farther and still in the U.S.— but Cabada has found common ground. Of his Americorps mission, Cabada said: "The goal is to inspire students to go on to college or some form of post-secondary school.— He serves as proof that it can be done.

Update: To learn about a January 2006 study involving first-generation college students, see the article Aiding First-Generation Students at InsideHigherEd.com.

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