Time to Change Some Lives
I’m a first generation college kid but I didn’t really know what that meant until I started working for the admissions office at the University of Chicago, my alma mater. There, I had the honor of reading somewhere over 10,000 applications during my 5-year tenure.
We’d spend from November to February reading applications from desks, couches, whatever location it took to get the job done and decisions out on time. Some days, snuggled up on my couch and attempting to meet my reading quota for the day, it was tempting to go on autopilot. However, there were always applications that reminded exactly how hard counselors and organizations work to get some kids to even apply to college, despite all of life’s setbacks they may have faced by 17.
In one, an applicant had two parents pass away tragically in the same car accident which they, along with their sibling, survived. Another described leaving the last two eggs in the carton before going to work before going to school so that their younger sibling could eat. My mind raced as I prepared to present these students to our admissions committee:
Who was I, this person sitting in an ivory tower, to determine their fate when fate had already dealt them a terrible hand? They deserve a leg up. Are we the right place for them? What about their families when they move from 350+ miles away? Will they be okay? I hope we have enough scholarship money for all of them.
As it turns out, I was right to worry. Students who come from lower income families or without significant parental guidance have significantly lower completion rates at college:
I grew up in a small farm town called Hartville in Ohio. We are ‘famous’ for our massive flea market and proximity to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My dad worked on heavy machinery for Conrail, a railroad company, for 24 years and then started his own small maintenance and repair business. My mom went to vocational cosmetology school in inner-city Canton and opened her first salon at age 21. She now employs around 50 women. In our family, college isn’t a guarantee but their hard work put me through college, along with some student loans. I’m incredibly proud to be their daughter and endlessly grateful for their sacrifice to get me where I am today.
In the spring of 2006, I remember questioning my decision to go to college. I was laying in my dorm room after a volleyball injury, wearing a pink cast, in too much pain to enjoy our university’s spring festival. College was hard. Really hard. I didn’t know how to study; I had always earned good enough grades without studying. And now, I was 350 miles from the safety net of my small town. This was an all-time low and I wanted out.
These kinds of thoughts are very typical of first generation college students and, unlike many first gen students, I even had the advantage of coming from a very supportive family. What is a real shame though, is that outside of the context of programs like Questbridge, College Now Greater Cleveland, Posse, and at schools like members of the Coalition for Access Affordability and Student Success, first gen students are dropping out with incomplete degrees at alarming rates.
I’m optimistic, though.
It’s the programs mentioned before and universities like Notre Dame College, an early adopter of Wisr, that give me great hope. Notre Dame College, does an incredible job supporting their first gen students. My company, Wisr, hosted a summit on their campus last month and 3 of their students addressed a room full of university leaders and shared what that community has meant to them.
“A support system.”
“Helping future students like me see they can do it, too.”
That was another one of those professional moments that I will never forget. Even more, it became crystal clear that what we’re doing at Wisr is the right thing to do. Students, especially first generation and underrepresented minorities, need the support of their alumni and communities. Sometimes a pep talk from someone who cares is enough to keep them enrolled.
The kid feeling sorry for herself in her pink cast eventually got up with the encouragement of her friends, coaches, and alumni mentors. That next year, I had my first internship at the Shedd Aquarium through a connection of an upperclassman in my sorority. My third year, I got an internship that was sponsored by the generosity of an alumnus at UChicago.
This status popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday and I thought it was a fitting share:
I share the excitement admissions officers are feeling these next couple weeks as they begin making decisions that will change the course of students’ lives. I am exceptionally proud of the work my team has done to impact the lives of students, especially first generation students, across the country who use the Wisr network. It’s incredibly rewarding to have a job where you change the world alongside institutions who are equally committed to the same mission. So, what I’m saying is: connections matter. I hope more alumni will use theirs for good to help give students a leg up in life. You never know their story.
This one is deeply personal for us and we won’t stop until students have the support and inspiration they need to succeed.
So, higher ed, let’s keep at it. I’m optimistic. Let’s keep changing lives.