Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

First in My Family: Paving the Road to College

November 8, 2006

My parents were young teens during the occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. Their formal education was disrupted by the war, and the economic rebuilding in Hong Kong in the post-war years prevented my parents from continuing their studies. (Postsecondary education was very limited to begin with on this tiny island, and the need to provide financially for their families ended their college dreams.)

However, like parents everywhere, ensuring that their children would go to college was something my parents set their sites on. Their dream was realized when my extended family got their green cards to enter the United States.

My parents took education seriously, although they could provide only limited homework help once the kids hit fifth grade. From then on, we were pretty much on our own, with the folks providing the parental expectations and guidance that many students don't seem to get today. By high school, though, we started to panic about college. As the oldest child, I was paving a new road.

My parents couldn't walk me through the process of getting into college, and the "help" high school counselors offered was pretty minimal: We were handed brochures sent to the high school from colleges, and we received brochures in the mail. Because we didn't know what questions to ask, we didn't know about all the options available. I basically had to figure things out on my own at the age of seventeen.

In my case, I lucked out. My family lives in San Francisco, and we have excellent institutions of higher learning in the area. Because I had decent grades and extensive volunteer work and community service to cite, I managed to get into the one of the best public universities in the country, the University of California at Berkeley. I didn't consider private colleges -- the tuition was out of the question. Besides, attending a publicly funded university would be the realization of my family's ideals about a democratic society and education for all.

Today, who provides information about college for students who are the first in their families to go on to higher education? Budget cuts have eliminated counselors at some schools or increased the student load for the few remaining counselors. And college counseling often comes too late. Students need to know by ninth grade that the courses they take, and the grades they get for them, will affect their options.

Help students get the knowledge they need. One excellent Web-based resource is First in the Family: Advice about College. Funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education, and developed by What Kids Can Do, the site offers excellent downloadable planning checklists. Have your students fill out the checklists, and ask them to refer to them as they move through the grades. The checklists will help students get organized and think about career options and will remind them about important information when the time comes for them to apply for college. The site's helpful resources section, offers information about choosing the right college, preparing for the PSAT and the SAT, and paying for college. I wish this resource had been available when I was stumbling through the process!

What other resources do you recommend? What specific tactics do you use to encourage first-generation college goers? Please share.

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  • College Readiness

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