By Brandon Terrell
I was reared and schooled in Detroit, where poverty
and oppression eloquently danced while violence and crime serenaded the
The crime and oppression in my neighborhood
drove me to submit a college application that changed my life's trajectory. I
wasn't going to college to become an adult; I faced mature challenges and
struggles long before filling out my college applications. For me, higher
education represented an escape from adult struggles.
But, I couldn't escape the financial
challenges. For first-generation college students like me, the responsibilities
designed for mature adults were often delegated to us adolescents. Now that I'm
in graduate school, I have some distance and perspective on what first-gens
really need to thrive at a four-year college.
I know from experience my journey as a
first-gen and non-traditional undergraduate college student is devastatingly
No one in high school or college spoke to me
about the financial realities of being a student who couldn't rely on family
for support. FASFA, Pell Grants and loans were foreign concepts. The
conversations I had growing up rarely involved college. We talked about who was
buying dinner that night or who needed to get a job to help pay bills.
Survival was the goal. By the time I applied to
college, I had already tangled with life and boxed with oppression,
discrimination, stereotypical beliefs, and negative ideologies, all while
juggling school, plus a job or two.
Life had prepared me for college. But the
challenges never stopped coming.
Even as I struggled to pay tuition and buy
meals when the food courts closed for the weekends, I often got calls from
relatives who needed help buying groceries. Relief started with me. I had no
safety net - I WAS the safety net.
Completing college required a survival
balancing act-maintaining my GPA, bridging gaps back at home, and navigating
collegiate bureaucracies while carefully responding to microaggressions and
prejudice in majority white spaces.
Spectators would classify the underlying factor
of our motivation as "grit" or "determination," but for
many first gens, our motivation is simply survival. We have no choice.
Missing an assignment, being too tired to
attend a bio lecture after working more than 30 hours a week, failing a 300
level course, or even missing a tuition payment created a slippery slope back
to the environment that suffocated dreams.
But we are a population colleges cannot afford
to lose, as we represented 36 percent of students seeking a four-year degree
nationwide in 2012.
Politicians, educators, social workers,
counselors, and administrators must address the intersecting social and
cultural challenges that precede our applications, accompany us to college, and
follow us even after securing a degree.
Access to college and financial aid is not
enough to secure a better quality of life for students coming from low-income
backgrounds. The gap is widening with only 14 percent of the most economically
disadvantaged students earning a bachelor's degree, according to a 2015 federal study.
We need a different support system to thrive in
college-mentors, help with living expenses, travel costs, tutors, flexible
schedules, and emotional support from other students who feel isolated, but are
coping with similar struggles.
We need to stop talking about college
attainment in simplistic ways. It takes so much more than grit.
Brandon Terrell is
currently attending graduate school at Eastern Michigan University, after
graduating there in 2015 with a bachelor's in psychology. He also works at the
University of Michigan as a program assistant for the community health department.