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For First-Generation College Students, Getting There Is Just The Start

Dianna Douglas
Ariel Sanders and Jeniece Madison

Going off to college seems like the American dream for first-generation, low-income students. But not if they drop out with loads of debt a few years later. 

As part of the KERA Yearbook project, local students talk about the headwinds they face as they pursue their college dreams – and college officials explain how they're trying to help.

Ariel Sanders graduated in the top 8 percent of her class in Dallas in 2011. She started at the University of Texas at Austin that fall, and quickly realized that her classmates had gone to better high schools.

“I noticed that they received a higher education than me," she said.

She wondered if she hadn't been cheated of the opportunity to keep up in her college classes.

"If I had gone to their school, I would have done very well,” she said.

She studied hard.  Her mother had tried college but dropped out, and Ariel Sanders hoped for a different path.

But by Christmas, her confidence had crumbled. She was getting Ds, and had dropped a class.

Her high school mentors in the group "The Turner 12" encouraged her to keep going. People were ready to pay for her books and help her with other expenses.

When she called her mom for advice, she suggested a community college closer to home. Sanders lasted at UT another two semesters.

“I had to go. My scholarships were taken away. I hated myself for leaving," she said. 

Sanders is now knocking out nursing courses at Mountain View and Cedar Valley community colleges. 

"It was a blessing in disguise. I’m so much more stress-free," she said.

She’ll graduate in a couple of years with her associates’ degree, and hopes to return to UT for her bachelor's.

Fighting Bad Study Habits and College Loneliness 

Jeniece Madison also graduated near the top of the class. Before she enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington, her friends in the same mentoring group warned her that her high school  classes may not have prepared her for college.

“I saw that,” she said. “I was not up to par.”

She got a 2.5 GPA her first semester. But she did not call home with her doubts. No one in her family had experience navigating college. Instead, she found the Baptist student ministry and got a job on campus.

“My parents think that I have everything together, so they leave it up to me whether to decide to stay in school or not,” she said.

Against the odds, the 21-year-old is on track to graduate in 2016 from UT Arlington with a degree in finance.  

Jean Keller, a vice president at the University of North Texas, says colleges in Texas now see lots of students like these—bright but poor kids who do well in high school and then flounder in college.

“That’s a radical shift with who is on the campus,” she said.

Keller is part of many efforts on campus to keep low-income students from dropping out. The programs help students make friends, sort their finances, and even get physical and mental health care.

“I so often wish I could give kids the magic bullet and say ‘if you do these two things you’ll be successful,’” she said.

“It’s the Job of the University”

UT-Austin has created many programs to help low-income students. Some students who pass summer classes, or get in involved as leaders in campus groups get spending money.

“Each of these kids is a human being who deserves to be successful,” said David Laude, a chemistry professor and senior vice provost at UT.

Laude has worked with kids who were skipping meals to save money, kids from academically unacceptable high schools, kids who doubt every day that they can do it.

“It is more work, but it’s the job of the university,” he said.

Josefina Sierra, a junior at Texas Woman’s University and another low-income student, faced many financial, academic and social woes at college. Her parents have elementary school educations. So she leaned heavily on campus organizations for help.  

“That definitely gave me a family away from home, and that started me off felling more involved and making connections at TWU,” she said.

Despite early stumbles, she’s now on track to graduate, too. She’s studying for the GRE in her spare time, and thinking about a PhD in psychology.

No matter how they get there or who helps along the way, Sierra, Sanders and Madison will soon hold a powerful key to economic success in America -- a four-year college degree.