Listen: First generation college students face unique challenges

MPR’s Elizabeth Baier interviews Augsburg College Student, Juventino Meza, a first generation college student.

Juventino Meza talks about what it like to be profiled for his race, financial struggles during college, and what his family thinks of his enrollment in college.


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ELIZABETH BAIER: Juventino Meza strolls into a courtyard also known as, the Quad at Augsburg college, and he's pointing to some of his favorite brick buildings.

JUVENTINO MEZA: The one that window right there, it's the president's office. He's friendly. He's pretty cool. I really like him, and that's--

ELIZABETH BAIER: And like a true Aggie Ambassador, Meza speaks proudly of these buildings in a way that none of his relatives could ever understand. Just a few weeks before starting his sophomore year, he says being the first person in his family to attend college, became a challenge years before he stepped foot on campus last summer. Meza spoke no English when he arrived from Mexico in 2003.

He took English language classes and eventually graduated from Arlington high in Saint Paul when he was 19. His older sisters dropped out of high school and never got their GEDs, and his dad and other male relatives worked long hours in physical jobs as construction workers. Meza knew he didn't want that kind of a life.

JUVENTINO MEZA: I definitely saw that with my siblings. I saw with my friends, and I was probably close to going that path. But I always liked school. But it was hard trying to finish every year with good grades, especially.

ELIZABETH BAIER: To stay in school, Meza surrounded himself with a group of supportive guidance counselors and teachers, and he also joined Admission Possible a college readiness program for low-income juniors and seniors. In 2007, he became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. As he headed for college last summer, he realized he simply didn't want to work as hard as his dad.

JUVENTINO MEZA: A lot of people have generalized things like, oh, Mexicans are really hard workers. Sure. But I like to think of myself, no, I'm a lazy bummer. I like to sit and read this stuff. And when that actually takes you further than working so hard, and I feel like I'm capable just like anyone else to be able to become a CEO or start my own organization or whatever.

ELIZABETH BAIER: About 1/4 of the state's undergraduates are the first in their families to go to college according to a 2004 survey of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. That figure also holds true at Augsburg. In Meza's freshman class, 90 of the 410 students were the first in their families to ever navigate through college. That translates to about 22% of his graduating class. Alyson Olson is the director of the TRIO Student Support Services at Augsburg. It's a national federally- funded program for first-generation college students. She says, one of the biggest hurdles is getting these students to truly believe they deserve to belong in college.

ALYSON OLSON: The biggest barrier to college education for first-generation students is this sort of feeling of being a fraud. A lot of times, first-generation to college students feel like, I've made it this far. I'm fooling people. They're going to find me out any day now that I don't really belong here.

ELIZABETH BAIER: Olson says keeping these students in school is also a challenge. At Augsburg, the entering classes of 2002 to 2006 had an average freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of about 81% for all four-year students. That number dropped to 76% for first-generation students. And when those numbers are calculated on a six-year graduation rate, retention drops even further to 51% for first-generation students.

JENNIFER GODINEZ: It's somebody going into the unknown.

ELIZABETH BAIER: That's Jennifer Godinez of the Minnesota College Access Network, a coalition of campus organizations that help minority and low-income students go to college. Godinez says these student support groups are vital for first-generation students because they offer valuable insight into the college experience.

JENNIFER GODINEZ: I think what a lot of the programs provide is exactly what the students are missing, which is college knowledge. So the real understanding of not only the technical aspects of getting to college, how to apply, the financial aid aspects, how to choose a career, those more technical pieces, but also the social aspects, being motivated, having people who are telling them they can do it, they can get there.

ELIZABETH BAIER: Back on campus, Meza logs onto a computer terminal inside the library. He prints out his fall class schedule before heading to the bookstore to tally up the cost of the books he'll need to buy this semester. As he walks around the college, he remembers a conversation he had with his mom this time last year.

JUVENTINO MEZA: I remember my mom telling me, well, it's your decision, really. It's something we don't know much about. We can help you, and we don't have the money to help you either to do any of this. I saw it as a challenge.

ELIZABETH BAIER: That challenge is exactly what's helping Meza become a pioneer in his family. He's double-majoring in sociology and justice and peace studies. We'll be taking all honors classes this year and hopes to go to graduate school one day. He's also discovered the lighter side of college life. He joined student government, founded the Spanish club, and volunteers at a nearby church as an English tutor. As for his grades, Meza says he has to keep his GPA high in order to continue qualifying for financial aid and scholarship money, and he says he's not waiting until he graduates in 2011 to start talking to his two younger siblings about the importance of going to college. Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio News, Minneapolis.

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