First generation college students share their struggles and successes

First generation college students share their struggles and successes

First generation college students share their struggles and successes
January 23
20:07 2017

Bianca Mujica | Staff Writer

Fernanda Ramos was the first and only one in her small north Houston town of Conroe, Texas, to go to college. She remembers getting a call from her mom at the end of her first day that her dad was in her room, on her bed, crying. He already missed her that much.

Ai Van Nguyen and her family came to live with her uncle in the United States when she was six years old. Her parents spoke only Vietnamese then, and still do now. She, however, was thrown into a Texas school in first grade and was fluent in English by second grade.

Sam DeLeon did not think college was possible for most of his life. It wasn’t until sophomore year of high school that his best friend pushed him to treat academics seriously so he could use education to improve his and his family’s life.

These are only a few of the many first-generation college students at UNT and across the country. According to a study conducted by the Department of Education, an estimated 50 percent of the country’s university population are first generation college students. However, only 24 percent of those first-generations tend to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Although these three have been academically successful, they still face hardships that their peers did not. Their parents could not prepare them for the challenges they would face, their family’s income makes paying for tuition increasingly difficult and they have often felt alone.

DeLeon said it would have made a tremendous difference in his life to have someone that understood his situation and was willing to walk through things with him as he learned them.

“It would have helped so much to have someone sit down with me for just 30 minutes instead of me having to play catch-up,” DeLeon said. “It’s easier to start high than work back up from being low.”

DeLeon is currently an integrative studies senior, with concentrations in business, public relations and sociology. His current and future family are his main motivations to maintain his 3.5 GPA so that he can graduate with honors.

Ai Van Nguyen, senior biology and psychology major, worked at the Emerald Eagle office calling incoming students to encourage them to register for classes before the deadline during the first week of class. Samantha Hardisty

With graduation is in his near future, he wishes he could encourage his younger self to believe in a seemingly impossible future.

“It can be more than just an idea,” DeLeon said. “College actually is tangible.”

Academic support is at the top of Ai Van Nguyen’s list for things first generation students need help with. She frequently struggled to understand what her peers already knew, so she made school her priority and never created trouble for herself.

“All I ever knew since I was a kid was to study so I can have a better life for my family and myself,” Nguyen said. “My parents never ask about grades, but I have the mentality that if I don’t get into medical school, they’ll be disappointed.”

Nguyen said her parents have always been her main motivation. She goes home to Arlington, Texas every single weekend, and even wants to buy them a house so they can finally have one of their own. Her older sister has been in the military for ten years, so she does everything she can to maintain their close relationship.

“When I told my mom I was coming to UNT, she did the math to see how many days I’d be at school and how many days I’d be home,” Nguyen said. “And every Friday when I get home, my dad has boba tea in the fridge ready for me.”

Nguyen, a biology and psychology double-major, was an Emerald Eagles Scholar but now works for the program by helping others understand things she didn’t know when she was a freshman. She often meets students similar to herself and has found a passion for using her experience to be the mentor she never had.

Nguyen isn’t the only first generation student looking to make her family proud. Many first generation students feel the need to tackle the challenges of college in order to provide hope.

Fernanda Ramos is also determined to make the people she’s close to proud. But she also hopes to prove the people that questioned her wrong.

However, getting here took some sacrifice. After being in a small town with the same people all her life, Ramos decided to move to a smaller high school for her last year to improve her ranking and financial aid opportunities. When she decided on UNT, more challenges arose.

The people in her town on the north side of Houston either went to community college or did not go to college at all, while some ventured as close as the University of Houston. But none left, and none would think of going as far as she did. She received support, but it was clear that she was wanted at home more than anything.

“We lived in a trailer home and my dad would say ‘wherever you go, I’m going to take the trailer, that’s why it’s mobile,” Ramos said.

She is still close with her parents and they remain involved in her education, but she was never able to talk to them about college because they were just as confused as her. She is now in her sophomore year with a major in Spanish, and while she intends to continue, she occasionally experiences low motivation.

“Sometimes I want to take a semester off, but then everyone back home will be proved right,” Ramos said. “I just have to remind myself that once I get my degree, I get to do what I want.”

What Ramos ultimately wants is to join the Peace Corps. But she said most people don’t understand why she wants to dedicate her life to traveling and helping people, just like they didn’t understand why she insisted on moving across the state for school.

She said she feels like the black sheep of her family and of her town.

“There’s a lot of feeling like you’re alone, because I didn’t know anyone who’d done this before,” Ramos said.

While college, in general, can be difficult to go through, these first generation college students are looking more towards what’s ahead of them than the struggles they are facing now.

“I have pride in what I’ve done because not a lot of people have the opportunities that I’ve had,” DeLeon said. “I want to help people succeed and find their potential. I feel like I’m breaking stereotypes, like I’m telling others in my situation that it is possible.”

Featured Image: Sam DeLeon, a senior integrative studies major, laughs often as he recounts his college experience. Samantha Hardisty

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Kayleigh Bywater

Kayleigh Bywater

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