Sunday, August 25

From First Generation Undergrad to PhD

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Terri Givens

by Terri E. Givens

Education has always been important to me—even in elementary school, I knew I wanted to go to college. Where I would go and how I would pay for it was something I didn’t think about until my junior year of high school. Having achieved a high score on the PSAT, I was bombarded with brochures from colleges around the country. However, it was all a mystery to me, despite help from my high school counselors. I ended up only applying to two colleges, and thankfully I was accepted at Stanford University.

I was fortunate to have a lot of support once I got to Stanford, particularly during my first year. My residence assistant, advising associate, and resident fellow played important roles in helping me through many travails, including my first roommate dropping out, and finding a balance between partying and studying.

School wasn’t easy, but the hardest part of my college experience was making it through financially. I found myself having to visit with the folks in financial aid on a regular basis to make sure that I was on track with my payments. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure I would actually get a diploma when I was called at graduation—I thought there could be one last financial aid hold that would keep me from graduating. I have written about my travails with financial aid in my column in Insider Higher Ed, but even a gap as small as $2,000 was a huge problem for me. This was my parents’ expected contribution, and unfortunately that wasn’t forthcoming.

As the first in my family to finish an undergraduate degree, I felt burned out after four years of a full load of classes, running track my first two years, working up to 30 hours per week, and being in an ongoing battle with the financial aid office. In the end, it was all worth it, and I was able to move forward with my education, eventually getting my PhD from UCLA, where I had a fellowship and finances weren’t an issue.

Today’s students face even steeper hurdles on the financial front. I work with several organizations that support low-income, college-bound students and despite having high levels of need, they are often left with as much as $15,000 in bills to find a way to cover on their own. Even when attending public institutions, this can be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

Student success has become a buzzword, but it’s clear that programs need to include many components—including finding ways to help low-income and first-generation students financially. I worked with several student success programs during my time as an administrator, and it seems that the challenges continue to grow. Beyond finances, many students struggle with psychological issues, including trauma, or have to take remedial courses, which put them behind in working towards their degree.

Higher education leaders have taken a variety of approaches to address the issues faced by the changing demographics of students entering college, and it is important that we collaborate around best practices and share what is working around the country. Our community is a great place to share your stories about student success, and we hope that you will use the articles in our July 15 newsletter as a starting point.

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