SHERIDAN — Some families remain reluctant to send their child toward higher education, especially with uncertainty about the cost, process and expectations of college life. Sheridan College first-generation student Hector Martinez said his parents showed skepticism of how college would benefit him financially.
Until Martinez decided to pursue higher education to become a teacher, the established norm in his family was to complete high school and start working.
Martinez’s parents worried about the financial commitment and whether he would stick with school, he said. Once they saw his dedication and hard-working mentality in action, they were more supportive of his goals, Martinez said.
Since early in high school, Martinez strove to become a teacher to replicate the positive impact teachers had on his life and to share his culture through Spanish language education, he said.
More than two-thirds of students in the Northern Wyoming Community College District are considered first gen, meaning neither a parent nor guardian has obtained a bachelor’s degree. More than three quarters are eligible for the TRIO program, which is designed to increase retention, create a supportive environment for success and encourage transfers to four-year institutions for students facing social and financial barriers to higher education, according to Director of College Success Programs Joseph Aguirre.
The two-thirds who are both first-gen and come from low-income backgrounds are the most difficult to retain because of the compounded barriers they encounter, Aguirre said. The NWCCD’s current grant serves 140 students under the federally-funded TRIO program and 160 under institutionally-funded College Success Programs.
It can be easy to forget how the nuances of a college experience can be foreign to first-gen students and their families, from financial aid applications to class schedules, Aguirre said. Legacy college students may have grown up around those norms and understand the process as second nature. But for some first-gen students, it can be challenging to grow accustomed to divergences from high school.
TRIO provides academic and non-academic support including course selection, tutoring, financial literacy, budgeting, career services, academic planning, job readiness, professional etiquette and social and cultural enrichment activities. Each student is assessed for their needs by a TRIO mentor, Aguirre said.
As a first-gen college student himself, Aguirre said the expectation to succeed can be a heavier burden on first-gen students than legacy students. Many students are driven to do well against the possibility that a failure will reinforce cultural resistance to higher education or the idea that college isn’t suited for students from a particular background.
Some look to first-gen students to pave the way. But the idea that friends or family are watching and waiting to see how a student succeeds or fails can also be stressful and daunting, Aguirre said.
“It’s challenging but I really wouldn’t change it, honestly,” Martinez said. “I try to work hard for something that I really want, that’ll make me a better person and even a harder worker…my parents always taught me to work hard for anything that I want.”
Martinez said he seeks to change the culture in his family and provide his siblings and future children with the opportunity to attend college and appreciate higher education for what it can provide as far as career possibilities and expanded worldview.
Martinez was one of four Latinx students in his class as a child. Academic support opportunities are available for students of color, but worrying about how to find a sense of belonging can hold some students back from pursuing higher education, Martinez said. It took him about one year to develop the confidence to become more heavily involved with the campus community, he said.
While an unfortunate truth, first-gen, nontraditional students have to work harder as they’re starting from “behind the line,” Aguirre said. He encourages students to accept their struggle is going to be more difficult than some other college students and embrace their strengths, he said.
Open, consistent communication with families is also important, including parents who are uncertain about or resistant to higher education, Aguirre said. Recognizing cultural values and keeping parents involved eases families into a reality that includes college.
Part of academic support involves preparing students to navigate the Euro-centric, American higher education system, which can require extensive coaching, Aguirre said. But ignoring a student’s cultural heritage is a “faulty” approach, he said.
Every TRIO staff member comes from a nontraditional background and overcame barriers to higher education, and campus activities celebrate cultural and ethnic identities. It can be challenging to promote cultural roots at a predominately white institution but there is an active, ongoing movement to support students of color, first-gen students and others who need assistance, he said.
“To dismiss the cultural tie that someone comes to college with is setting a student up for failure,” he said.
Martinez said he appreciates when peers ask him about his culture and his parents’ experience living in Mexico. It’s important that he never forget how his parents grew up and what values they imparted — hard work, appreciating diversity and to never settle for less, Martinez said. Apart from his own background, recognizing a variety of perspectives has great value, he said.
In his nine years at Sheridan College, Aguirre said he has seen the institution grow significantly and make critical strides toward supporting students from a variety of backgrounds. With still a long way to go, Aguirre said he is optimistic that if momentum on campus continues, Sheridan has a better chance of diversifying in a positive way. The reciprocal relationship between the campus and community has great potential.
“It builds knowledge, it builds understanding, it builds — in a sense, diplomacy,” Aguirre said.