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First-generation college students persevere

Suraj Sangroula, 20,right, and Ayi D'Almeida, 21, are both Concord High School graduates and first-generation college students at the University of New Hampshire, Sangroula grew up in Nepal and D'Almeida was raised in Ghana. With the support of family and their high school staff, they were able to successfully apply for college and scholarships. The number of first-generation college students in New Hampshire remains steady.  (Photo courtesy of Anna-Maria DiPasquale)

Suraj Sangroula, 20,right, and Ayi D'Almeida, 21, are both Concord High School graduates and first-generation college students at the University of New Hampshire, Sangroula grew up in Nepal and D'Almeida was raised in Ghana. With the support of family and their high school staff, they were able to successfully apply for college and scholarships. The number of first-generation college students in New Hampshire remains steady. (Photo courtesy of Anna-Maria DiPasquale)

Deciding to apply to college and getting accepted was easy.

What needed to happen in between was the intimidating part for Suraj Sangroula and Ayi D’Almeida, Concord High School graduates and first-generation college students at the University of New Hampshire. Sangroula, 20, and D’Almeida, 21, are part of a first-generation college student population that has maintained steady enrollment numbers in the state over the last five years. For students whose parents don’t have an associate or bachelor’s degree, negotiating college visits, applications for admission and financial aid, and finding the right fit pose unique challenges. There are resources available, though, and by finding these resources, the two Concord graduates found their way to Durham.

“Growing up in Ghana I never thought about college,” said D’Almeida, a 2011 Concord graduate and junior at UNH. He decided to attend college shortly after moving to the United States six years ago. “I think it was mainly because my friends were talking about college, and they said how important college was for the future.”

He knew he needed more education and experience to find a job, but he wasn’t sure where to begin the application process. “My dad always said he didn’t have the chance to go to college, so I should take it,” D’Almeida said.

Terms like SAT, GPA and FAFSA seemed like a different language for Suraj when he arrived in Concord from Nepal in 2011. His mother always expected him to go to college, but applying to college here was more confusing than he expected. “I had no idea how much paperwork there was,” said Suraj, a freshman. Both students applied to more than a half-dozen schools.

“I had no idea how many essays I needed to write, or if they were long essays or short essays,” Suraj said.

Both students had their parents’ support, though their families couldn’t provide practical advice about applying or, once they were accepted, what to expect from college life.

“My advice would be nothing is impossible. If you want to go to college, there are resources, a lot of resources out there to help you. You just have to look for them,” D’Almeida said.

Still enrolling

The University System of New Hampshire doesn’t keep statewide data on first-generation student enrollment, but information from area colleges indicates first-generation students continue to enroll. This trend is reflected in programming at some New Hampshire colleges and universities.

In Durham, first-generation college students have comprised about 30 percent of the student body over the last five years. The Rising Scholars program at the school is funded through a TRiO grant from the U.S. Department of Education and promotes the academic success of students who are the first in their families to go to college. In 2012-13, UNH received $319,000 and contributed $81,652 to support retention and persistence of first generation students. The TriO program, which also gives financial support to other colleges, including Plymouth State, is a federal program for first-generation students, low-income students and students with disabilities.

“What we do is provide both academic support and a pretty holistic approach. We’re just trying to make more overt some of the unspoken rules of the college culture and academic climate,” said Keller Magenau, director of UNH’s Center for Academic Resources, which hosts the programming. “It’s symbolic of the larger support for students at New Hampshire.”

At Granite State College, which currently has an enrollment of 3,200, about 58 percent of students are first generation. The percentage has fluctuated between 60 and 70 percent in the last five years, said Laurie Quinn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Granite State College.

“It makes sense for us. We are designed to provide that point of entry into quality higher education,” Quinn said. “It’s not a surprise that people who might be new to exploring college tend to find us.”

With a motto based on academic coaching, first-generation students have responded well to the educational program, Quinn said. “If a student comes to one of our campuses, we don’t assume that they have traditional needs. We start by really talking with them about their goals and what is bringing them back to school,” she said.

When the school reviewed its general education requirements recently, helping students understand their college experience and how it relates to their life was identified as a possible need. In the Connecting to Your Major course, a requirement for students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, students learn about their major and its real world applications.

“It really combines getting the academic field while preparing for their professional world aspirations,” Quinn said.

At Plymouth State College, 350 students – about 38 percent – of incoming students in 2013 were first generation. The number fluctuated between a high of 489 new first-generation students in 2008 to a low of 330. An education about college life includes buy-in from students and parents, and includes both the academic and lifestyle expectations.

“What seems like something small at the time turned out to be really important. Those are things that are hard to know or experience if your parents didn’t go to college,” said Patrick Cate, director of university studies at Plymouth State and a first-generation college student. The school’s Plymouth Academic Support Services includes counseling, peer tutoring and help for students to succeed academically and socially.

Supports includes everything from what to expect in the first few weeks of school to resources available to students. “Students spend way more time outside the classroom than in it,” Cate sad.

Getting there

“I think first-generation students are where we need to spend our resources, where we need to focus our time and efforts,” said Anna-Marie DiPasquale, a social worker at Concord High School who works with New American students. “It’s a confusing, complicated and scary process.”

Family support is critical, even if the parents didn’t go to college, said Jay Hauser, a senior college counselor at the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance’s Center for College Planning.

“I see a lot of students coming in by themselves. They’ll say, ‘This is my process; I’m doing it by myself.’ They will come in doing the FAFSA, saying the parents can provide the information but they don’t want to be involved in the process,” Hauser said. “We really want parents to be involved. It’s important even if you didn’t go to college.”

NHHEAF is a critical resource for first-generation and non first-generation students. It provides comprehensive college preparation for K-12 students in New Hampshire. From college savings and planning to college application processes, NHHEAF gives first-generation college students the additional support through the process if families don’t have that knowledge, Hauser said. Every April, NHHEAF hosts Destination College at Southern New Hampshire University to show resources available to first-generation college students.

Every student’s situation is different, Hauser said.

“I think the biggest thing with first-generation kids is getting them involved, getting their parents involved. It’s exciting when you can take a family that has never gone to college and talk to them about how the process works,” he said.

At Hopkinton High School, guidance counselor Corrine Lajoie fields questions from potential first-generation students who want to know how much college costs, why it matters and how to apply. “Some ask, ‘What is the FAFSA?’ There are a lot of these things they’d never had experience with,” she said.

Some families have an idea of a good match for their student. If that school doesn’t align with the student’s goals or grades, it takes time to explain other options, she said.

“Others come in and say, ‘We have no idea. Maybe you shouldn’t go to college,’ because there is fear about what college might be like,” Lajoie said. “They can be completely diametrically opposite in terms of starting point.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com.)

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