A group of University of Miami students and first generation college-bound students in the Upward Bound program joined researchers in a shark tagging mission in the Florida Keys.
A group of University of Miami students and first generation college-bound students in the Upward Bound program joined researchers in a shark tagging mission in the Florida Keys.

Students who are the first in their family to attend college experience it much differently than students whose parents graduated from college.

When Christopher Curran started looking for the right university, his parents had little advice to offer. They had never attended college.

Curran, from Whitman, Massachusetts, is the oldest of five children. Curran said he worked hard to impress his parents in school and daily life. His parents decided he would have what they never did.

Curran’s parents had little money. But they worked hard to send him to Boston College High School, a well-known and respected private high school, in 2000.

He says he always felt different from his classmates. They had money for new clothes while he worked at a part-time job to pay for his transportation to and from school.

Also, the parents of his classmates could share advice and connections from college. His could not.

Curran is a “first-generation” student, meaning he is the first in his family to attend college.

He is not alone.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce studies the link between education and career success. Research from the organization says that almost 32 percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. are first generation.

The research also suggests first-generation students have a more difficult college experience than those with college-graduate parents. Researchers found only about 40 percent of first-generation students completed a degree or certificate program after six years.

Compare that to 55 percent of students with college-graduate parents complete their programs in the same amount of time.

In 2004, Curran chose to attend Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts because it was close to his family. He could not ask his parents for advice about choosing classes. His mother was more worried about risky behaviors that happen at colleges, like alcohol use.

Curran says he had to work harder than other students to prove himself. He wanted to show his parents that their effort of sending him to a special high school and to college was worth it.

But he also realized, he said, that lacking some resources helped make him the man he is today.

"I realized it was a lesson. And I realized that a lot of those kids that I went to high school with weren’t going to have the same understanding of how the real world works because they’ve never had to work for it.

"So, when I got into college I definitely had a respect for what it took to get there and what it took to succeed. In that it wasn't just something that happened."

Curran finished his undergraduate degree in 2008 and a master’s degree later. He says his path was long and never easy. But, he says, if a person never tries they will never know if they can succeed.

Maria Urena is a college adviser with the College Success Foundation. Her organization works to improve college graduation rates among first-generation students and other minority groups. She says Curran’s story is very common among first-generation students.

Urena notes that not all first-generation college students are the same. They may be from high- or low-income families. They may have been born in the U.S. or a foreign country.

Urena works with students at A.C. Davis High School in the northwestern state of Washington. About 80 percent of the students there live in poverty, she says. Also, 49 out of 50 students in her program have parents who never completed high school.

Most of these students also have had to deal with traumatic experiences in their lives, Urena adds. This includes family members dying or going to prison. Also, families often need older children to work to provide extra income.

Many of her students believe they will never go to college, she says. Those who choose higher education do not know what it requires.

"A lot of times, students don’t even know where to begin the process, like what kind of questions they need to be asking," she says.

Urena meets regularly with students and parents to discuss their goals and how to reach them. She brings community members in to help students with their application materials. The library at A.C. Davis High School stays open late so students can apply for financial aid in their free time.

Nichole Smith agrees that first-generation students need extra help with applying to schools. Smith is the chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. She says colleges should ensure that information to prospective students is clear.

Even when a student is accepted to college, barriers persist. First-generation students often feel they do not belong. They feel greater stress and pressure to succeed, she says.

"When you ask them ‘What are some of your biggest challenges and some of your greatest fears?’ They have a great fear of failure, because they feel if they fail, they not only fail themselves. They fail their parents. They fail their children or their potential children, if they don't have children yet. They fail their other relatives."

Smith suggests that colleges and universities should do more to measure the progress of first-generation students. That way, the dream of a college education can come true for them and hopefully their children as well.

This story was reported by VOA Learning English

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