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First-Generation Student — What Does It Take?

First-Generation Student — What Does It Take?

The Belmont-Cragin neighborhood sits on Chicago’s Northwest side. It’s not uncommon for children in this neighborhood to be low-income, minority and first-generation students. Over 95 percent of CPS students in Belmont-Cragin are eligible for free or reduced lunch. 37 percent of their parents don’t have high school diploma. And anti-violence movements such as “The Interrupters” have not yet been able to stop the killings. What happens to Belmont-Cragin’s poorest children in their school years and beyond? Stephanie Miller from World Sport Chicago knows. She has been following the lives of her 55 WSC Scholars intimately since 2010. She has stories such as first-generation student Franky Paredes, a basketball player from Belmont-Cragin, gearing up for graduation in 2016.

21 year-old Paredes is finishing his third year at Marquette University in Wisconsin. But it wasn’t easy for him to get where he is today. Franky is the first person in his family to attend college. He faced a number of challenges that make it difficult for first-generation students to succeed. They are unfamiliar with the system, which makes the tedious application process and daunting cost of higher education even more acute. “My parents didn’t know where I could go or what schools would be good for my education,” said Franky.

Fortunately, Franky found the World Sport Chicago Scholarship Program, which offers Chicago high school student-athletes college application mentoring, participation in on-site college interviews and the opportunity to receive a financial aid reward. Mentors support scholars through the emotional and logistical challenges of applying to college. “My mentor Tom and I connected well as soon as we met. Tom is a good friend of mine and it helps that he is Marquette alum. We talk and he visits me, which means so much to me,” described Franky.

WSC Scholar Parades with his mentor Tom Villinova.

WSC Scholar Parades with his mentor Tom Villinova.

The WSC Scholarship Program offered Franky support and guidance in the most crucial moments of his life. Franky identifies three critical steps along the pipeline to Marquette University where the WSC support was most helpful in making a successful transition from his Belmont-Cragin high school:

  • Raising aspirations for college
  • Navigating the financial aid and college admissions process
  • Assisting the transition to college

Hundreds of thousands of students in the United States drop out of college and have education debt with no degree. This is an even greater risk for first-generation students as they often don’t receive enough emotional support and informational guidance from their colleges. “It was so hard for me to connect with other students who attended private high schools,” explained Franky. “I didn’t completely fit into the environment when I first got here. And sometimes I feel like I’m segregated — on the other side of everything.”

If you’re among those applying to college as a first-generation student and you’re hesitant to answer the question “Where did your parents go to college?”, you aren’t alone. Thirty percent of the American freshmen students are the first in their family to enter college. And as Franky keenly suggests: “When you start to struggle, reach out to people around you, especially to your teachers.”

In her famous commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling said: “However my parents – both who came from impoverished backgrounds, and neither of whom have been to college, … I cannot criticize them for hoping that I would never experience poverty.” Franky echoes on Rowling’s humble remark: “My parents both have sacrificed to help me and my brother succeed. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”

There remain many students who, unlike Franky, do not get involved with the programs such as WSC Scholarship Program. They never hear about them. Or they don’t have supervisors like Stephanie Miller, who listens to the students and convinces them that they could and should go to college. “Stephanie is doing an incredible job and I will always be grateful for the work she does,” concluded Franky.

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