Thought #16: In Recognition of First-Generation College Parents

Each Semester that I’ve worked at City College of San Francisco, I’ve been inspired by a book from one of my English courses (see Thought #6: Cultivate a #winning Mindset). This semester, an anecdote from Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle, got me thinking about the parents of First-Generation college students.

Boyle – a Jesuit priest and the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles – uses anecdotes from various Homeboys and Homegirls to illustrate what a lifetime experience serving the Boyle Heights community taught him about faith and gangs.

Boyle fondly remembers Bandit,  a childhood delinquent who frequented juvenile detention centers,  because he was able to successfully turn his life around after growing weary of street life. 15 years after landing his first legit job with Homeboy Industries, Bandit reaches out to Boyle to bless his eldest child’s transition to college.

As Boyle prays for the eldest daughter, Bandit and his wife start to weep. Reflecting on Bandit’s and his wife’s reaction, Boyle explains, “I’m not entirely sure why we’re crying, except, I suppose, for the fact that Bandit and his wife don’t know anybody who’s gone to college – except, I guess, me” (197-198). Father G, Bandit, and his wife weren’t weeping because they were sad, they were weeping from a combination of pride and uncertainty.

Often the conversation about college access revolves around First-Generation college students, and how to get them into college despite their personal circumstances; however, for Thought #16, I wanted to shift the spotlight to First-Generation College Parents, and think about how to better support them through the transition from high school to college.

Social Capital is Important

I elaborate on the concept of Social Capital more in a previous Thought (Thought #4: 4 Ways You’re Rich); however, for this Thought, it’s important to understand that social capital essentially describes the value and opportunity gained from one’s personal and professional network. Accordingly, not all social capital is equal in terms of its value in the world of college admission and career planning.

It’s convenient for those of us with access to privileged social capital to take for granted how much our communities (e.g. family, peers, teachers, trusted advisers, etc.) shape and facilitate the attainment of our aspirations; however, the reality is that in the year 2016 some families still don’t know anybody with a bachelors degree, which means that these families don’t have any  intimate examples of people who’ve successfully navigated college and used their education to launch a career.

Getting more information about investing for college and planning for careers directly to parents is necessary. Moreover, Tattoos on the Heart reminds me that churches are still beacons of social capital for families and communities who haven’t traditionally had access to it.

Separation Anxiety is Real

Imagine you tune into the news, and the breaking story is: San Jose State University students hold rally to end racism on campus in response to incidents on campus, including an incident involving the chaining and humiliation of a black student by three of his white roommates. The truth is, hate crimes and sexual assaults on college campuses are still breaking news in 2016.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that First-Generation College Parents, with no college experience of their own to draw on, might be more than just a little bit hesitant to send their children off to college, which is foreign, expensive, and possibly dangerous.

The best way that I can think of to mitigate this separation anxiety is start engaging parents in college preparation early. While it is important for First-Generation college students to tour college campuses, it’s equally important for First-Generation College Parents to visit colleges and be confident that chosen campuses will be a safe and welcoming environments for their children.

The Impact of a Degree

While it is undoubtedly an important moment when any parent sends their child off to college, the anecdote of Bandit is a reminder of how monumental it is for First-Generation College Parents because a college education has the potential to change the trajectory for their entire family.

This is why First-Generation College Parents need guidance and support on how to help their children navigate and persist through to their degree because college isn’t easy – and I’m not only referring to the academics.

The ubiquity of retention programs might suggest that First-Generation college students have all the access to guidance and resources that they need; however, many students turn to their parents first, which suggests that we empower First-Generation College Parents with the information they need to help their children navigate these crucial conversations.

Essentially I’m advocating for a different rhetoric about First-Generation College Parents – a rhetoric that acknowledges the reality that many families are marginalized from information about college admission and career planning. Earlier and more consistent efforts to engage First-Generation College Parents in the college admission and career planning processes needs to be a priority in schools serving large populations of First-Generation college students.

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