The high school counselor told Yvonne Lopez-Morton to forget college. Be a secretary, she was told. Her parents hadn’t gone to college, and they didn’t counter the no-college message. Luckily, Lopez-Morton didn’t listen. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1970, the first in her family to get a degree. Her two younger brothers followed her example, and then the floodgates opened. Education is now the default mode in her extended family.
Lopez-Morton is a Spokane Public Schools employee and board member for Washington’s Latino/Latina Educational Achievement Project. She illustrates how college first-timers possess the power to change education attitudes and practices within families.
But first-generation students face unique challenges. In Monday’s Spokesman-Review, reporter Shawn Vestal explained why first-generation students tend to have lower grades and are more likely to withdraw from courses – or drop out of college entirely.
They need extra help. The Gates Foundation has responded with money for mentors, and the state is spending $7 million to expand services for low-income and first-generation college students. This is money well spent.
This focus on first-generation students will prepare the way for a culture expected to be filled with first-timers. The immigrant population is steadily increasing; by 2050, nearly one in five Americans will be foreign born, according to the Pew Research Center.
In the early 20th century, the children of Italian, Irish and Asian immigrants faced discrimination and poverty. Education lifted them into the mainstream culture. In 2003, Leon Panetta, chief of staff in President Clinton’s White House, bragged to the graduating class at University of California, Berkeley, that he was the first in his Italian immigrant family to go to college. His parents’ dream was to give their children a better life. Education was the ticket.
First-generation students need more than state-funded programs, however. They need role models. If you were the first in your family to graduate from college, talk about it to the younger people in your life. Brag about it, the way Panetta does. This is especially important for teachers, coaches and school staffers, because their stories will be heard by students who might not hear the college message in their own families.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen was her family’s college first-timer. College led to law school, which led to practicing law, which led to the judicial position she holds now. She talks with pride about her son, who has a master’s degree in computer science and works for Google in Australia.
Support first-generation college students.
You never know where their influence will lead.
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