Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Provide Guidance to First Generation College-Bound Students

Start with students’ mindset

January 19, 2012

Middle-class families don't always realize it, but we feed our kids a steady diet of college-bound messages from the time of their infancy. At least that's been the case for my husband and me. Our daughter had her first college t-shirts before she reached six months old. The word shirt is plural because my husband and I went to different colleges, and each of us hoped to pass on some subliminal message about the superiority of our respective institutions.

It was all in good fun, of course, but the more I've worked in the college-access space, the more conscious I have become that I'd given our daughter a clear advantage just by the fact that, from birth, she was exposed to our expectations of college as something inevitable. In my family, no one ever asked me if I wanted to go to college. One of the earliest jobs I remember my mother having was as a research librarian at a university. Occasionally, she took me to work, and I remember hiding among the stacks and playing in the leaves on campus. The question of whether I would go to college was never on the table. The question was always, "What college would you like to go to?"

Most first generation college students don't have the advantage of spending endless hours on a college campus at key developmental points in their lives. But many parents of first generation college students understand the life-changing opportunity that higher education represents. Education is certainly the surest and most realistic ticket into the middle class. At Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), our primary goal is to make sure that all of our young people are asking themselves and their families what colleges they will attend, not whether they should go to college at all. Here's my Power List for helping all first generation college-bound students to get in the game and win.

1) Early and Frequent College Exposure

Until your students have had a sustained college-bound experience, it can seem like an expensive pipe dream. Expose them to colleges early and often. When I was a classroom teacher, I joined the mailing list for a performance space at a local college. They offered lots of school programs, and it wasn't uncommon for me to pack up my homeroom crew for a performance and then to have the kids eat their brown bag lunches on the campus lawn. These moments provided lots of opportunity for great conversations about my own college journey and what my students would need to prepare themselves for college. Did it work? A few years ago I got a random message on my answering machine from one of those same students who'd sat on the college lawn with me. "Ms. Moss, I know we haven't spoken in years, but I found your number because today I received my master's degree and I just wanted you to know what a profound effect you had on me." Talk about rewarding! At HEAF, we contact student groups at various local colleges and ask college students to spend time showing our middle schoolers their campuses and talking about their college experiences. Starting college exposure early really helps to demystify the experience for first generation students.

2) What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

In my experience, many first generation college-bound students obsess about their future careers and can sometimes be extremely narrow in their college searches because they can't get away from the link between college and future earnings potential. I can't say this is a bad idea necessarily, but I certainly didn't know what my career path was going to be at 16 or 17 years old. I think it's important for my students to know that also, and to remember that sometimes the best question is, "Who do you want to be when you grow up," because if you can think, write and communicate effectively you can almost always figure out the rest later.

3) College Match, Match, Match!

A few years ago, a young lady I know made the decision to limit her college search to schools that offered a journalism major, though she was great at many things and had a broad number of interests. Within her first semester she made two discoveries. First, she hated journalism. And second, she wanted a campus with an increased sense of political consciousness. We helped her transfer. The advice here is that, while a certain school may seem like an academic match, it might not provide young people with the social, political or cultural experiences that can be the deciding factors on their persistence over the four to six years it may take to earn a degree. One of the reasons I chose Swarthmore College as my undergraduate institution was its rich Quaker history of liberal social activism. While the college is certainly a place that honors political diversity, if I'd been a neo-conservative I don't think I'd have enjoyed my time on campus as much. Help your students ask the right questions about campus life, class size, course selection and dorm life. Most kids don't leave college for academic reasons; they leave because they are unhappy. Getting the match right can make all the difference.

4) Money and Status

The biggest barriers many of my students have faced during the college guidance process have been money and understanding of how financial aid works, and surprises around immigration status and how this can impact financial aid for college. Broaching the subjects in the fall of senior year won't allow families the lead time required to get their financial houses in order. In this economy, full scholarships are few and far between, and most families, even low income and working class families, will be expected to make some kind of financial contribution to their children's education. Encourage families to explore scholarships, to begin an early review of financial aid guidelines for the schools in which they're interested, and to disclose their immigration status so that you can help them develop a plan of action as soon on as possible. It is possible to go to college regardless of your financial and immigration status, but planning ahead definitely makes the difference.

5) Sharing stories

Another great way to prepare first generation college-bound students and their families for the college experience is to have them speak with other families who've had similar experiences. One of the communities we serve at HEAF has a cultural tradition that doesn't always celebrate the idea of girls leaving the home or neighborhood for college. I was afraid that some of my students would miss out on tremendous opportunities as a result, but I didn't want to position myself as the outsider who knew best. I decided to invite families from the same cultural background who'd had similar misgivings about sending their children away to come back and speak to parents from their community about how positive the experience can be for students and their families. Those families had a great deal more cultural understanding than I did. And the fact that I respected the current families enough to know my own limitations gave me more credibility.

For more information to share with your first generation college-bound students, refer them to sites like and others. There are great resources available to families, and it's our job as educators to arm them with the information they need. Does it matter in the long run? When the youngest of three brothers at HEAF graduated from a prominent New York City university, their father -- a building janitor -- marveled at the what the future of his family was going to be like with two of his boys now holding ivy-league degrees and one with a degree from an institution that was just as highly regarded. The impact of higher education on achievement, aspirations and socio-economic status can be generational. It's up to us to see the potential in our students and help them get the ball rolling.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • College Readiness
  • Diversity
  • Family Engagement
  • Parent Partnership
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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