First Generation Students Tell Stories of Hardship and Elation

Chris Barnett, Gabriel Greschler, Sam Freed and Kash Bhatnagar

Contributing Writers


Pushing up his black, thick-framed, prescription Ray-Ban glasses, Anthony Bailon, a junior media studies major, pondered his biggest incentives for attending college. “I feel like I owe a lot to my parents,” he said. “It’s like a big debt I have to pay back to them. I know I can do this. I might as well do this for my parents and get something out of it too.”


Bailon is the first person in his family to attend college. As a first generation college student, he said that he feels added pressure to succeed. “You have all the hopes and dreams of your family on your shoulders,” he said. Bailon feels anxiety when it comes to being a first generation student. “It’s mainly the person putting pressure on themselves but there’s still that pressure from the parents […]. It’s scary, because what if you don’t do it,” said Bailon.


There are specific hurdles first generation students go through when attending college. For example, parents are unable to offer advice from their own experiences. Further, some students feel intimidated by the fact their peers come from families where college is a norm.


Director of Admissions Michael Beseda believes that attracting first generation students depends on recruitment. Thirty-four percent of USF undergraduates are first generation, according to I’m First!, a third-party online support community for first generation students.


“Some schools don’t reach out to [areas with first generation students] because they’re not really interested in those students, but we do,” said Beseda. “It’s been a long-term priority of the University, in some ways going back to its founding principles. […] When Jesuits came to San Francisco there were a lot of immigrants or first generation individuals who were lacking in educational opportunities, and so the Jesuits started working to give access to those people.”


However, Bailon feels first generation students shouldn’t be treated any differently than other students. “There shouldn’t really be a stigma towards a first generation student,” he said. “Like ‘oh, he’s first generation, that means there’s something wrong with his family,’ or something like that.”


Michael O’Reilly, sophomore advertising major from Pasadena, CA. NOELLE MCHENRY/FOGHORN


Beseda mostly sees the stigma of being a first generation college student through an economic lens. “There is a concern in our society that there are a lot of college-age, college-ready young people who don’t have a lot of resources, who don’t have a lot of opportunity,” he said. “Because in our society the way opportunity tends to be distributed is that wealthier communities often have a lot of college graduates and a lot more opportunities, and more rural, less wealthy communities have fewer.”


USF’s support for first generation students originated from the Muscat Scholars Program (MSP), a community designed specifically for first generation students. Previously known as the Foreward Summer Bridge Program, MSP has been offering shared retreats, classes and events as well as advisors to help first generation students navigate their university experience since 1994.


Charlene Lobo, the director of the MSP, stated that this group of students are a priority. “With unique needs and perspectives, first generation college students often require social, academic and personal support,” she said. “Considered an at-risk population nationwide, creating a supportive environment for first generation college students helps them thrive at USF and life after graduation.”


Despite the University’s efforts to recruit and promote its commitment to first generation students through programs such as the MSP, however, not all of its resources are utilized by this demographic. “If I was more aware I could’ve taken advantage of them more,” said Michael O’Reilly, a sophomore advertising major who does not use first generation programs. “But I’m not aware of them and I don’t think they make themselves as visible as they could”.


Anthony Bailon, junior media studies major from Corona, CA. RACQUEL GONZALES/FOGHORN


Financial aid is also a large part of how the university supports these students.  “We also certainly place an emphasis on need,” said Beseda. “Not that all first generation students are needy, but a disproportionate number of them are.” Since the University isn’t required to measure specific scholarship amounts given to first generation students, Assistant Vice Provost for student financial services Mary Booker was unable to provide an exact number. She was able, however, to provide the amount given to all students in institutional scholarships, which totaled $75,763,000 in the most recent available data from the 2015/2016 academic year.


Destiny Velasquez is a sophomore media studies major who sometime feels dissonance between her life at USF and where she grew up in Inglewood, a city in Los Angeles County. “I always tell my parents I feel like I’m living a double life,” she said. Back home, gangs tag a wall along the side of Velasquez’s house. Here, she doesn’t have to worry about gangs. “For me, it is just super weird,” she said about the contrast between USF and home. “It’s two completely different communities.”


Being a first generation student is just one element that USF considers for enrollment, alongside test scores and GPA.  “I feel like there’s some misinformation in what plays out in the admissions office,” said admissions representative Stephanie Smith. “I’d say if we’re looking at students in the entire evaluation process, sure we’re gonna look at if there first generation or not, and we’re gonna look at their application and consider that, but that’s one portion. It’s not like a point system; we don’t make sure when we accept the class that like at least one third of them are first generation.”


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