College & Workforce Readiness

3 Ways to Help Students to Be the First in Their Families to Attend College

By Ileana Najarro — January 06, 2022 3 min read
Alma Lopez, school counselor coordinator at Livingston Middle School, at the school in Livingston, Calif., on December 14, 2021.
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Alma Lopez, the 2022 American School Counselor Association School Counselor of the Year and lead school counselor at Livingston Middle School in Livingston, Calif., went to college as a first-generation student without crucial information that could have helped her, such as the fact that there were different ways to pay for tuition that didn’t involve taking out loans.

Now the pandemic has upended future planning for current high school students, with 2021 graduates reporting heightened stress along with financial hardship as they enrolled in college, starting full-time work, or took on caregiving roles. This was among the main findings from a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in August and September 2021 of nearly 1,500 high-achieving high school graduates.

The survey additionally found that more than 1 in 5 low-income 2021 graduates said they changed their college or job plans to care for a family member infected with or at high risk for COVID-19, and about 14 percent of respondents said they “never” received support from their high school on questions related to financial aid.

When working particularly with students who would be the first in their family to go to college at this tumultuous time, Lopez offers some advice to best serve their needs.

Don’t assume what information the student can access

Lopez grew up in a Mexican immigrant household where she couldn’t ask her parents for advice on how to apply for college.

“Many families are similar to my own parents who came to the country as young adults, wanting that better opportunity, trusting the systems that were out there to guide [their children] but really limited in their own understanding of a lot of those systems,” Lopez said.

When working with students in a similar situation, Lopez strives to provide as much information as possible to students and their families about all paths available post-high school without assuming students already have a family member they can turn to for advice. That includes, for instance, explaining what scholarships students can apply for and what work-study programs entail.

Get parents involved

The more parents who didn’t attend college themselves can learn and be part of their child’s education journey, the better the connections school counselors can form with students, Lopez has found.

That’s why when Lopez takes her students out to field trips at state and community colleges, parents partake as chaperones to share in the learning experience. She has even coordinated events and field trips specifically for creating a space where parents can ask all sorts of questions, such as how scholarships and work-study programs work and what exactly is the living situation on college campuses.

Demystify the college experience

Students too have questions about college that go beyond the application process.

It’s why Lopez’s school in Livingston, Calif., works with the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program that partners her middle school students with current college students to help them learn things like studying and communication skills. Knowing how to study effectively, how to communicate and how to be organized are skills that aid students’ success in school and really in life, Lopez said. The program also offers her students an opportunity to ask all sorts of questions about college life such as what activities, including sports, are available; do they have to pay for meals; and do they have to live on campus.

The more school counselors can help demystify the college experience for students, the better planning for college can go with students being able to ask more specific questions about the process.

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as 3 Ways to Help Students to Be the First In Their Families to Attend College

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