Keeping First Generation College Kids On Track

For freshman college students, it's the end of first semester. For many first generation college kids, grades, work and money are already a struggle. In fact only 15 percent complete their degrees within 6 years. Host Michel Martin and a panel of moms and education experts discuss how parents can help their students succeed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And we know people are probably thinking about preparations for the holidays and parents of college students are eager to welcome them home, especially those who've been away for the first time.

But for too many kids and families, the holidays are going to be marred by some difficult conversations about the fact that some of those students are not going back. Now, some are struggling with money or grades or stress, and that pushes many off the path to a degree. Those challenges seem to be greater for minority kids and first generation college students.

According to the Department of Education, only 17 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate within six years. That number is 15 percent for first generation college students of all races.

So today, as the holiday season begins and students are starting to come home, we thought this was a good time to talk about how parents can help keep their kids staying the course.

We're joined now by Marcia Cantarella. She is author of the book, "I CAN Finish College." She's spent nearly 20 years of her career working in higher education, including at Princeton University and New York's Hunter College. She's also a mom who's supported three now grown children through college.

We're also joined by Mariela Dabbah. She's author of "Latinos in College" and a number of other books to help guide Latino parents through the educational system.

And also with us, one of our regular contributors, Aracely Panameno, one of our regular moms. She has a daughter in college now and there were some bumps on the road that she can help talk us through.

Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

MARCIA CANTARELLA: Thank you for having us.

MARIELA DABBAH: Thank you for the invitation.

ARACELY PANAMENO: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Now, Marcia, I'm going to start with you because your book is very simple and easy to understand and it kind of really brings it down to where the goats can get it. Right?

CANTARELLA: Yes.

MARTIN: Which is explaining exactly what it is that tends to drive kids off course. What are some of the things that tend to be challenges in helping students stay in school?

CANTARELLA: Well, one of the issues is that students are afraid to ask questions. The entire biology class will sit there, totally clueless about what's going on, and no one wants to raise their hand because they're afraid of looking dumb. And this is particularly true for first generation, low income students of color who are really intimidated by these gigantic institutions.

But it's true for all of the other resources on campus. They don't access the deans. They don't visit faculty during office hours. They don't use the writing center. You know, there's so much that their tuition is paying for that they don't access, not realizing that asking is what college is all about.

MARTIN: And can I ask you, though? There are, obviously, some structural issues, sometimes. You know, financial aid, for example, may not cover the true cost of school. For example, the kid may need a winter coat or something like that and it isn't covered by scholarship money, so I think those are some things we also should talk about, too. But Marcia, I wanted to ask, though, based on your experience, those are some things that, maybe, jump right out at people.

Are there some hidden things, things that aren't so obvious, that contribute to kids dropping out of school that you want to flag for us?

CANTARELLA: Well, for example, when you mentioned the money issue, it's actually connected to that asking questions issue. So, for example, a student who decides to drop a course and will very typically walk away, just walk away from the course, and then they end up getting an F for the course because they haven't officially de-enrolled. They may, then, get a bill from the college for this course that they didn't complete. If they want to transfer someplace else, they can't transfer because they still owe that institution money. They may lose their federal funds because they've got an F that has dropped their GPA below a level where they can maintain their scholarship or Pell.

So, all of a sudden, there is a money issue when there really was a question about getting through the course.

MARTIN: I see. Mariela Dabbah, what's your perspective on this?

DABBAH: I agree with Marcia about the asking questions, but I also would like to add the fact that many kids who are from first generation college bound, are attending school and commuting home. So they're returning, either off campus - many times, they return home over the weekend and many of them go to the local community college and they live at home.

So there is some lack of engagement with the school community and a feeling that they belong to that community and they have an investment there. And they miss out on part of the experience of going to college, which is to develop that strong network that you will use for the rest of you life after you graduate because they are pulled between home and school. So one of the things that parents can do, when they get their kids back for the holidays right now, is not start loading so much on, oh, I miss you so much, don't you miss the home cooking? And things like that, but to try to understand that your kids' work at this time is their school work.

MARTIN: Aracely, what's your perspective on this? And one of the reasons I'm happy that you're able to join us today is that you've talked with us before; you have a daughter, she's studying for finals now, right, at the University of Virginia - represent - but, she hasn't had the easiest time. In fact, she did take a break at one point from college studies. Tell us more about that.

PANAMENO: She did. She did. It has been a bumpy road and I continue to be her strongest cheerleader. And I would like to, you know, some would disagree with a little that has been said because I think that there are other factors as well that are within college life.

So my daughter went to UVA, she is resident on campus, she is there. She is experiencing - having a similar experience as the other 25,000 students that are there in Charlottesville as well.

But I would like to start with the systemic structural pieces. When we first got to UVA, my flags went up because the very first message I heard during orientation when we got to campus was the staff was telling the students have fun. You don't have to graduate within four years and, you know, that concerned me. You know, financially, obviously one more year is going to cost me an additional amount of money. But this portion of having fun, you know, here was a kid that was coming out of high school with highly accomplished with, you know, graduated with honors, etcetera.

So, yes, when she got to campus she did have fun. And one particular occasion towards the end of her second semester when she was recovering academically, she was invited to a fraternity party. The fraternity was on campus. She consumed so much alcohol. She's 5'7", 112 pounds. She consumed so much alcohol in a very short period of time. She passed out. Her heart stopped. The EMTs actually had to bring her back and right after - I didn't get to hear from the University or the hospital that she was actually, you know, in the ER, and I didn't get to hear anything until like maybe four days later when she called me back. At that point, she was in finals. She got through. She passed, you know, those courses with A's and B's but because her hole was so deep from the first semester, she still was placed in academic suspension.

MARTIN: So what I'm hearing you say is that, you know, really, an inability to handle that social scene because it was really unfamiliar to her.

PANAMENO: Right.

MARTIN: She didn't do any of that in high school and then when she was there it was like, whoa.

PANAMENO: Right.

MARTIN: You know, throw me in.

PANAMENO: Right.

MARTIN: Throw you into the deep end of the ocean.

PANAMENO: Right.

MARTIN: Wow. So they've given us a lot to think about here.

We're having our weekly Parenting conversation, and we're talking about how parents, particularly those whose children are first-generation college students, can help them stay the course.

My guests are Aracely Panameno, one of our regular contributors. She's the mother of a current college student. Mariela Dabbah is author of "Latinos in College," among other books. And Marcia Cantarella worked in higher education for many years and is the author of "I Can Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide."

So let's talk about a little bit of this stuff. And I do want to just point out some data from a 2009 survey from the research group Public Agenda, saying that nearly three-quarters of students who dropped out said money and the stress of having to work was a factor.

So Mariela, I want to put this question to you, because you're saying that a lot of the kids who might be first-generation college students are working and going to school at the same time, and they just think it's too much. How do you overcome that?

DABBAH: Well, I think that kids can hold a part-time job. Actually, I worked through my college years when I was in Argentina. But you need a certain amount of time to focus and concentrate, and what happens many times is it's not that they only work but they help at home with taking care of siblings or, you know, elder family members and that distracts them enormously.

So the other thing that would really help is to help them create some kind of cohort of other students on campus. And that's why I'm saying understanding that you're living the college experience fully means also to partner with other students who are not first-generation, we have families who have gone through college and can help you understand that you do need to study hard and you can't to get involved in absolutely everything that you want to get involved. That's another problem. We see a lot to with Latino students. They are suddenly happy to get involved in a lot of volunteer work and fraternities, sororities, and their academics fail.

So creating a cohort for them, helping them identify other students who have family experience and cultural capital to understand the process I think is important. And you as a parent can help them find some mentors - adult mentors - who also understand how the system works so that they can be helped.

MARTIN: But, you know, I actually though, the part of this conversation that's bothering me is that a lot of these parents of these first-generation college students have no idea what these students need. They've sent their children to live in a country they've never visited and they have no idea what it is that they need. And I really personally think that that creates some tension with the students who may come back and say, you know what mom, I need to do this unpaid internship so that I can get experience in this field. And the parent is like, are you crazy? What do you mean work for free?

DABBAH: But that's exactly why I was saying that finding adults who can help mentor these kids, who understand how this works, it's crucial if you don't have that knowledge as a parent.

MARTIN: Marcia, I wanted to follow up on something you were saying. You were saying that one of the major problems for first-generation students and some students of color is that they don't ask for help and that they don't want to risk looking dumb. And I wonder whether some of that is this kind of subtext that some of these kids may be experiencing, whether it's spoken or unspoken, that suggests that they don't even belong there anyway; so that they're afraid of risking, looking dumb. I just wanted to get your take on that.

CANTARELLA: Absolutely. There's a concept called stereotype threat that Professor Claude Steele out of Stanford came up with many years ago, where it talks about not affirming a negative stereotype about the group that you represent. And students of color and first-generation students are particularly vulnerable to this stereotype threat idea and will say explicitly that they don't ask questions in a class where there's a white professor, for example.

MARTIN: How do you deal with that? How do you challenge that? And again, I'm trying to focus this conversation on the kid who's coming home for winter break and is in trouble and the conversation inevitably arises where he says I don't want to go back. What's the conversation that needs to be had here?

CANTARELLA: When you think about kids, you know, looking, you know, kids always look for their peers. They look for a group to affiliate with. Many campuses have organizations and programs like within the City University of New York there is a Black Male Initiative or there are others sort of ethnic-oriented organizations, many of which have an academic component and are led or supervised or mentored by an administrator on campus. Those are very positive kinds of organizations for students to affiliate with, where they're going to be with other students who are also trying to navigate this new environment, where they're going to get support, where the motivation is to excel academically, and there will be the comfort level of being with people who are coming from a similar background.

And also tap the upperclassman. Look at the students who are already on a path, who are already successful, and they will tell you, they would tell incoming students, I've been where you are. This is what I had to do. Here's some professors may be to avoid, here's some professors who are really supportive. Here are the tools that I use, it's OK, you can do this. And upperclassman are great at doing that.

MARTIN: Aracely - I'm going to give each of you a final thought, a final word of wisdom. And I have the feeling we're going to return to this conversation. This won't be the last one we have, but just a right now. I found your daughter's circumstances, your story fascinating were you really felt that there was a mixed message - that she was getting a message perhaps - why don't we just say it - from people more privileged than she about what the college experience was for and that she took that and ran with it and there was a consequence. So what other advice do you have Aracely, for helping your child stay the course?

PANAMENO: Well, I think that there was another element that was said that played into that, right? And that was the fact that perhaps she wasn't emotionally ready to handle all of that, and so that played into it. But there's also the issue of tuition. Tuition costs has continued to increase. There isn't as much financial aid as we would like to believe, so what's available for her is actually loans. So my final word to her was as long as you are committed to yourself I am committed to you. And so continue to do your best.

She's gone back. She's taking 18 credits. She is working really hard. She has a part-time job that doesn't add up too much, to be quite honest. And, you know, whenever she calls and she says, Mommy, I don't have any food in the refrigerator, I transfer some money to her account so she can eat. Mommy, I need, you know, $700 to pay my extra tuition. I send the money so that she can actually pay it. So I am the bailout, if you will, or the safety net for her of last resort as long as she continues to focus on herself and her success.

MARTIN: Can have a final word of wisdom from each of you? And again, I think we should maybe get a booster shot at the next vacation break from each of you; help parents and kids help stay the course who might be getting discouraged. So Mariela, what's another word of wisdom for you?

DABBAH: You don't have to do it alone. You might not know how it works but there's plenty of people around you who do and there are resources out there for you. And obviously, I'm going to mention that I'm a contributor on Mamiverse and I write about these topics there. But also tap into your friends and neighbors and colleagues and professional networks and ask questions as an adult so that you can help your child.

MARTIN: And Marcia, final thought from you?

CANTARELLA: Again, I think it is so important for the students - as Aracely was suggesting - to take responsibility for themselves, but in doing so to really look at all of the resources that are available on campus and not to go it alone. Isolation is a very dangerous thing. They should tap into everything that's there and not suffer in silence. That's always a signal that there is a problem. So as a parent, you're hearing silence, then maybe that's a reason to ask questions: have you been to the career office? Have you made a plan with your advisor? Ask those kinds of questions to encourage your student to actually use what's there, because you're paying for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You sure are. Marcia Cantarella is the author of "I Can Finish College." She's worked as a student affairs official for nearly 20 years. She was with us from NPR New York, along with Mariela Dabbah. She's the author of the guide "Latinos in College," among other books, and she's a regular contributor to, as she told you, the Mamiverse site, which also offers advice for parents of college students. Also with us from Washington, D.C., Aracely Panameno. She's one of our regular contributors and her daughter is in college now. And we wish her the best in her finals. You can do it. You go, girl. And thank you all so much for joining us.

DABBAH: Thank you.

PANAMENO: Thank you.

CANTARELLA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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