Experiencing Western as a first-generation college student
Even at the elementary school level, college is planted in the minds of youth as being the route to personal success. Today, 30 percent of all entering college freshman are the first in their families to enroll in college or university. Twenty-four percent of those students are low income. Without advice from their parents, first-generation students experience roadblocks with the application process and seeking aid. Many balance their schedules between work and being the first in their families to navigate a complex education system. According to the First Generation Foundation, an organization advocating for the success of first-generation college students, more than a quarter of these students drop out after their first year. Despite the odds, many of these students are pushing through to achieve their educational goals.
Name: Abby Abe
Class Standing: Senior
Abby Abe’s six-year college journey is nearing its end. In fall of 2012, college was new to her. Moving away from family, finding her way through college as a first-generation student and developing her ethnic identity in this new environment didn’t come easy. But finding herself as an adult and as an individual is her favorite aspect of college.
“A lot of times when you’re first gen and you’re also bicultural, you’re super connected [to family],” Abe said with a nod. “That space can help you find who you are.”
Born in Sana’a, Yemen, Abe immigrated with her mother and father to Bellevue in 1999. Abe was book smart but felt disorganized and didn’t know if college would be the right path. It wasn’t until her sixth grade teacher, Ms. Goebel, took interest in her and introduced her to the Advancement Via Individual Determination program.
“I thought, ‘You know, I’m a minority and my parents don’t have a lot of money,’” Abe said. “But going through AVID really helped me see that college was an option.”
Abe wanted to go to college to make her parents proud. But she also wanted to meet a diverse group of people who could introduce her to new ideas and help guide her decision making about her future. She knew she wanted to do medical mission work in Ethiopia but didn’t know the track she wanted to take.
Abe started school with three other friends who were also first-generation students. Unfortunately, they couldn’t establish networks of support. By her second year, her friends dropped out of Western. She stresses the importance for first-generation students to actively seek support. While many students can turn to parents for college advice, first-generation students have to take the initiative to seek help from outside sources.
“The Counseling Center is really great if you have any stress related issues. There are people there you can talk to, and they can help you cope better,” Abe said. “Not asking for help can be really damaging academically.”
Abe finds being a minority and needing to negotiate an identity between two cultures made her feel like an other at Western. Her grades show she belongs, but it’s hard to get past that feeling. That’s why she’s so glad the Ethnic Student Center is expanding.
“No matter how well I do, there’s an element of imposter syndrome because I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, I don’t know if I really belong here,’” Abe said. “I know it’s just in my head, but that’s an aspect of [college].”
In her third year, Abe finally landed on the track she wanted psychology. She mentored at-risk youth at Shuksan Middle School, which helped her feel less alone. Many of the students will also go on to become first-generation students, and their shared experiences gave her a sense of community.
Abe is graduating in fall 2018 and wants to go to graduate school to study global health so she can do medical mission work for non-governmental organizations. She also wants to work with minority first-generation students to show them resources are available if they need it.
“Keep an open mind and take [college] day by day,” Abe said. “You may not land in the degree path that you originally settled for, but you’ll find something that you love if you just stick it out. Reach out if you need help.”
Name: Alexander Smith
Class Standing: Junior
Major: Business Administration – Operations Management
Military or college: the two paths Alex Smith saw available to him.
Raised in Oak Harbor, WA, Smith lived around many military families. His father chose the military when he was young, but Smith’s parents always wanted him to get a college degree. To them, college was the pinnacle of being a student.
If he joined the military, he’d have a guaranteed paycheck. Choosing college would mean facing many financial barriers. Still, he chose college.
“I just didn’t want to do that to my [future] kids and be gone for half the year or the year,” Smith said. “To me, it just wasn’t worth it to miss your kid’s first steps. I just said, ‘I’ll take the dive into college then. Even if I don’t finish it, I’ll have that chance to experience those things.’”
Smith moved from Oak Harbor to his sister’s home in Mount Vernon, where he still lives, to cut down on rent costs. He commutes 30 minutes to get to his classes and work.
In his first year, Smith struggled with the academic pacing expected of college students. He didn’t feel high school prepared him for the courses, and as a first-generation college student, it was difficult for him to understand the nuances of college without guidance.
Smith started with a heavy course load but didn’t do homework and placed more emphasis on hanging out with friends. His grades dropped, and he failed a class. Smith’s parents were disappointed when they found out, and he decided he had to rework how he saw college.
Understanding college was a gradual learning process, but he found a mentor in a distant uncle living in Salt Lake City, Utah, Larry O’Donald.
“Every time I call him, he’ll pick up and tell me all this advice and these great big metaphors that are crazy,” Smith said. “Just to help me through college and make sure I’m comfortable with what I’m doing.”
Along with school, Smith supports himself financially. He worked full time at an auto licensing shop while also being a full-time student. The hours were overwhelming, so he was forced to quit. However, he still had to pay for school and other living expenses. Now, he works a more physically laborious job with fewer hours at a UPS warehouse.
Since his first year, Smith’s grades have skyrocketed. In his past two quarters, he’s aced all of his classes and is finally getting accustomed to how much work college takes.
Smith feels the pressure of finishing college because his family is relying on him. He knows how important graduating is to his parents, and even though they are encouraging, he knows they’d be disappointed if he didn’t finish.
“It is a big accomplishment, but to them, it’s greater than anything they ever did,” Smith said. “Even if that’s not necessarily true.”
Smith wants to focus his degree on helping others, although he doesn’t know yet what form it will take as a career. He also wants to ensure a secure future for him and his family.
Name: Jennifer Peterson
Class Standing: Senior
Major: Human Services
Jennifer Peterson and her mother buckled up and made the four-hour drive from Woodland, Washington to Bellingham for Western’s Summerstart. She couldn’t stop smiling. It was the start of a new life—the first in her family to go to college. That day, Peterson’s mother, who has multiple sclerosis, found herself unable to navigate the entire campus. Peterson hiked up to the Ridgeway Commons and back just to bring her mother’s dinner to her.
“She felt so bad that she couldn’t be there for me. My roommate that I stayed in the dorms with [that night], her parents didn’t even come,” Peterson said. “And my mom was freaking out that she couldn’t even go see a dorm with me! That really put things in perspective of how much my mom was sacrificing to be there.”
Peterson’s parents wanted her to go to college. Her mother enrolled in a trade school to become a registered nurse but was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and couldn’t finish. Her father enlisted in the Air Force. After being discharged, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington from 1985 to 2017.
“I think it made them push [college] 100 percent more,” Peterson said. “My dad saw direct implications in his job. He basically did the work of about two levels above him, but because he didn’t have the degree he couldn’t technically get the pay for that.”
Peterson’s family supported her decision to go to university but couldn’t afford it. Her senior year of high school was flying by, and the financial barrier still stood. Her last semester she was awarded the Washington State College Bound Scholarship, opening the door to her college career.
The College Bound Scholarship goes to students from low-income households and provides a portion of tuition, some fees and a small book allowance. Peterson also earned $10,000 in scholarships from the National Society for Multiple Sclerosis, several community organizations and worked 30-hour weeks. She’d wake up early for morning-prep shifts at Papa Murphy’s, go to school, do her homework and work some more.
Peterson’s college experience prompted her involvement in Futures Northwest, an organization dedicated to helping first-generation students within the College Bound program. At the organization, Peterson walks these students through the confusing FAFSA and college application process.
College provided Peterson with the excitement of finding a community and studying what she loves, despite the confusion of maneuvering a system without guidance. In her junior year, Jennifer took a quarter off of school to work and save money. She continues to support herself financially, is back in school and is projected to graduate in fall 2018.
Peterson interns at Secret Harbor, a youth crisis organization. After graduation, she intends to continue as a case aid there for a year before applying for graduate school.
“My background of coming from a working class family and having a mom that has an invisible disease gave me a lot more compassion, and I think a lot more will to go into human services and social work,” she said.
Name: Mariah Harbaugh
Class Standing: Junior
Major: Elementary Education – Language, Literacy and Culture
“The first month I was here [at Western] I was like, ‘I should go back. I should go back. I miss my parents. I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Mariah Harbaugh said. “Then I was like, ‘I want to be a teacher!’ It just came over me so randomly. It was perfect.”
Harbaugh was raised in Oak Harbor, Washington and lived with her mother, father and younger sister. Her mother was the last of six kids, and her father was one of seven children. Harbaugh’s grandparents didn’t have the means to send their kids to college, so Harbaugh’s mother started working after high school, and her father joined the Navy.
Harbaugh’s father told her he wanted her to go to college so she’d have more opportunities than he had. Her parents always said they would help her with the cost because they didn’t receive the help from their parents.
“I’m very privileged in that sense. I know a lot of kids don’t go to college because they can’t afford it and their parents don’t help them,” Harbaugh said. “I’m very lucky my parents told me college was in my future and that they would help me with that.”
However, as a first-generation college student, Harbaugh didn’t know what to expect from college. She and her parents only had the cinematic depictions of college to go off of, which primarily portrayed partying over academics.
Harbaugh’s first quarter at Western was extremely difficult. Being apart from her family was emotionally strenuous, and she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her college career. She and her parents missed each other, and Harbaugh contemplated returning home to study at community college.
“They didn’t know how to let go, and I didn’t know how to let go of being home,” Harbaugh said. “There was just nothing really to compare it to.”
Harbaugh found her inspiration in her experiences with past teachers and her love for working with children. She decided to pursue elementary education with the goal of giving children a loving space in the classroom and to help them grow the same way her own teachers allowed her to.
Harbaugh also found friends in former high school classmates who she never got to know at home. Before graduating, she signed their yearbooks and halfheartedly said, “Maybe I’ll see you around at Western.” When she moved into Higginson Hall, they were just three doors down, and a sense of familiarity in a new environment turned into friendship.
College taught Harbaugh to come back to her roots of being family oriented and home centered. Now she knows her family is the most important thing to her and goes home on weekends to visit them. They’re her biggest supporters and best friends.
Name: Tye Johnson
Class Standing: Senior
Major: Psychology – Behavioral Neuroscience
As the first in her immediate family to graduate high school, Tye Johnson didn’t have college on her mind growing up. However, in the sixth grade, she saw a presentation for Advancement Via Individual Determination, a program placing students on the college track. It piqued her interest and she started the program the next year.
Johnson was born in Anacortes, Washington and is the oldest of four children. Johnson’s mother had her at 18. Her parents were never academically oriented but Johnson was. She loved math and science for their concrete answers to problems. Johnson stayed with AVID and regulated her own schooling without her parents’ influence.
Johnson knew she’d have to pay for college on her own, but she was excited nonetheless. It was an opportunity to get away from home and be independent. Johnson grew up in the lower 20th percentile in terms of socioeconomic status, so she wanted to make sure she’d have more financial security as an adult than she did while growing up.
“I knew it was going to be expensive, and it was going to be tough living on my own because I’m completely self-sufficient,” Johnson said. “I knew it was probably going to suck, but I was going to try anyways.”
Johnson received scholarships from her community and state-assisted financial aid due to her family’s low-income status. She started working her second year to pay for living expenses.
Johnson knew she would have to plan her time effectively and put her all into classes, but unexpected factors appeared within the first quarter of college. She struggled with residual mental health issues from high school, noisy neighbors and, as a first-generation student, she didn’t have her parents’ guidance.
“I am out of my family’s comfort zone,” Johnson said. “I’m on my own out here trying to figure it out.”
Johnson’s advice to incoming first-generation students who need to support themselves is to apply for all the financial aid they can every year, budget their money and find balance between work and school that fits them best.
“Don’t overwork because then you’re detracting from the real reason you’re here,” Johnson said. “Don’t be afraid of taking out a loan because if it’ll lessen your stress enough to do well, then you should do it.”
Johnson always found psychology interesting. During her sophomore year, Johnson’s brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, pushing her in the direction of behavioral neuroscience.
Johnson graduates spring of 2019 and plans to take a gap year before graduate school. She doesn’t have long-term goals in place but is motivated to find what she wants to do within her field.
“It’s kind of nice being a first-generation [student] because I’m able to do better than what my parents did,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have as many opportunities as the people around me so it’s almost a good thing in a way.”