Ronnie Estoque, a first-generation college student from South Seattle, shares five lessons he learned from the college-admissions process.
Editor’s note: This is the third essay we’re publishing as part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Our Student Voices columnists are high school and college students writing about education issues that matter to them. Know a student with a story to tell about schools? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Dahlia Bazzaz: email@example.com.
I’m a first-generation college student to-be, and my journey to higher education hasn’t been easy.
Born and raised in South Seattle in a low-income household with social stigmas all around me, I have attended public schools my entire life and graduated earlier this month from Cleveland High on Beacon Hill. My family came to this country from the Philippines in search of opportunity, and made a living working labor-intensive jobs in hotels and laundromats.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
For us, college isn’t a given, and I had to motivate myself to pursue postsecondary education. For me, the college admissions process ultimately ended with a full-ride scholarship to Gonzaga University through the Act Six Scholarship Program. As I take the plunge into college this fall, I have some valuable lessons that might be beneficial to other potential first-generation college students.
1. Be proud of your story and find your motivation.
Subtle remarks like, “Wow you’re so lucky!” after someone hears you’ve received a college acceptance letter or a scholarship offer may tick you off initially, but don’t let people discredit the work you put into reaching your academic goals.
Personally speaking, it’s never been easy prioritizing my academics. Having to work part-time throughout my junior and senior years to provide for my personal expenses taught me the importance of independence, which translated into understanding myself more.
The reality of being poor bothered me growing up, but I told myself that everything in life is merely a temporary phase. The underlying parts of our identities, some of which may appear as potential setbacks, are not something students like me can wish away overnight. Breaking out of the economic cycle of poverty has been one of my main motivations for wanting to attend college, along with attaining the knowledge to become a political reporter. Few people in my family have professional careers, with most of my relatives working minimum-wage jobs to sustain themselves.
Above all, don’t let your achievements become devalued because your struggles are seen as unfair advantages during the college-admissions process compared with more-privileged students. Most will never fully know your personal story and struggles, but you must transform that into self-motivation.
2. Advocate for yourself.
For many first-generation college students, family members who are familiar with the college admissions process are scarce or nonexistent. This means being proactive about seeking advice and mentorship. As I was applying to college, I was scared, nervous, and unsure of myself. Self-doubt clouded my mind, about how I was going to figure everything out. Though all these emotions bubbled up inside of me, the physical effects of my stress never showed.
To find guidance, I applied to a college-readiness program during my junior year called the Achievers Scholars Program through the College Success Foundation (CSF). The program accepts students from across the state of Washington. Every year, 50 students at Cleveland High School are chosen for the program, and during my senior year I was accepted, and got to work with Dawn Cunanan, the program adviser.
“There are a lot [of programs], students just have to reach out and look for them,” Cunanan said. Through her mentorship I discovered scholarships that I could apply for, and she offered me valuable advice on how to maneuver through college and scholarship deadlines. My family members and family friends didn’t have information about these kinds of opportunities.
The Achievers Scholars Program connects students with mentors who have professional backgrounds, which allows students to gain a deeper insight on college and how it connects to the job market. More funding should go toward programs such as the College Success Foundation that support potential first-generation college students. Other college-readiness programs include College Access Now, designed for students who are low-income and have a 2.0 GPA or higher, and University of Washington’s Upward Bound, which offers college-level courses to students during the summer to help prepare them for the academic rigor of college.
I grew up in a household where I was told never to seek help unless absolutely needed. For me, asking for help was the hardest step I had to take during the whole college-admissions process, but the one that has most definitely paid off.
3. Overcome language barriers during the financial-aid process.
You must be patient when explaining the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to your parent or guardian, and why its completion is vital to being able to afford college. A report from the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center, “Cracking the Student Aid Code,” highlights the disadvantages that the financial-aid system presents for non-English-language speakers and immigrant families.
Living under the guardianship of my uncle, who is from the Philippines, I had little help in deciphering and filling out the cryptic lines of the FAFSA. Initially, my uncle was skeptical about giving me his personal financial information so I could receive college financial aid. My family had never been super involved in my educational endeavors, and that disconnect had to be bridged during the financial-aid process.
For families of first-generation college students who don’t speak English or speak it as their second language, the challenge of filing a FAFSA can be even harder. “My dad just told me to figure it out by myself but I couldn’t because it was my first time looking at a tax report,” says Andy Huynh, who just completed his first year at South Seattle College. Huynh points out that more support should be offered to students who may not know how to properly translate essential parts of the FAFSA to their parents, and why they are important.
“My Chinese isn’t that good, so every time I explained it to my parents they wouldn’t get the point I wanted to get across to them,” Huynh said.
4. Define your success by your own standards.
Cleveland is a high school that students choose to attend, with a focus on the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math. The school places incoming students into one of two academies: School of Engineering & Design and School of Life Sciences.
During my freshman year I was placed into the engineering & design academy because I wanted to build upon my initial interest in computer science. After taking several courses in computer programming, I realized that the field was not for me. That same year, I was placed into a journalism writing class and began to develop a newfound interest in writing.
At times I have felt discouraged because of the declining stability and sustainability of journalism. My peers who seek careers in STEM fields that are typically high-paying kept me questioning my decision to focus more on writing. Through it all, I continued to cultivate my craft by finding opportunities to write for publications through workshops (The Seattle Globalist) and internships (South Seattle Emerald). For me, success was finding opportunities to write about communities that I was a part of and giving a voice to the marginalized and underserved.
Becoming a first-generation college student only adds fuel to that fire of pressure as being the “last hope” for your family. Growing up in a Filipino household, I faced expectations from some family members who thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer to earn a high salary. As I got older, my family’s expectations for my career choice softened as I pursued more journalism opportunities and found my calling.
Whether you’re pursuing higher education at a community college or a four-year university, know that you are still accomplishing something that no one in your family has done.
5. Celebrate your accomplishments, but know that the journey is just beginning.
Getting accepted into college is only half the battle we’ll be facing. According to The Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation college students “ … were less likely to complete their college degree in six years than their peers whose parents had at least some college experience (50 percent first-generation versus 64 percent non-first-generation).”
A study conducted at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill identified barriers that first-generation students may face: insufficient academic preparation, limited college knowledge, cultural conflict, limited familial support, and financial constraints.
“My parents expected me to work at the same time and go to school, but that would cause problems because I would focus more on work than school,” Huynh said. “My parents would just talk about how I should be able to do both because I’ve had privileges and advantages that they weren’t able to get.”
Being a first-generation student, you are forging a path that no one in your family has walked. At times, you can feel alone, lost, or confused on how to proceed. Thankfully for me, the Act Six Scholarship Program grouped me with fellow scholars at Gonzaga University to build a support group that I will be able to turn to when I need help.
Colleges need to increase opportunities for first-generation students to build meaningful connections with faculty and staff early in the school year, and enhance communication about the resources available to them. This is easier said than done, and at times, first-generation students can fall through the cracks. I hope to continue to find community with other first-generation students next year, and gain a deeper understanding of what being a first-generation student truly means.