Foss: First-generation students need extra help

Kayla Sanchez is a first-generation student from Schenectady who hopes to study nursing at Russell Sage next fall. 
Kayla Sanchez is a first-generation student from Schenectady who hopes to study nursing at Russell Sage next fall. 

Categories: News, Opinion

Stephanie Ramkissoon’s parents wanted her to go to college. 

But they knew very little about what that entailed, having never been themselves. 

If not for a mentor provided by the local non-profit organization Capital Region Sponsor-A-Scholar, Ramkissoon might have struggled with a process that’s time-intensive, stressful and sometimes downright confusing. It was her mentor who took her to visit colleges, helped her fill out applications and even taught her to drive. 

Now the 18-year-old Schenectady High School senior is weighing her options, hoping to study religion and Spanish at either Siena College or Le Moyne College in Syracuse. 

“I don’t think I would have gotten as far as I have without my mentor,” Ramkissoon told me. Her mentor “opened my eyes to what was available to me.” 

A good student who comes across as well-spoken and thoughtful, Ramkissoon is obvious college material. 

But she’s also what’s known as a first-generation college student — someone whose parents did not attend college. 

The recent college admissions scandal, in which affluent parents are alleged to have purchased spots for their children at elite schools such as Yale and Stanford, shined a light on a process that purports to be fair, even noble, but all too often favors the rich. 

In reality, you don’t need to cheat to gain an edge in the college admissions process. 

A familiarity with the process is an advantage in and of itself — an advantage first-generation students don’t have. This makes it more difficult for them to get into big-name schools — and to weather the culture shock they often experience once they’re on campus.

“A lot of times the parents (of first generation students) support their children going to college, but if they don’t have that personal experience, they can’t say, ‘Oh, here’s what I did. That happened to me,'” said Marcy Stengel, director of development and communications for Capital Region Sponsor-A-Scholar. 

Research shows that students whose parents did not attend college are less likely to pursue an undergraduate degree than the children of college-educated parents. They are also more likely to struggle financially, and to drop out. 

This is a big problem, and it deserves more attention. 

If we want first-generation college students to succeed, then we need to offer them extra support. 

One program that provides this extra support is Capital Region Sponsor-A-Scholar, which is open to students at Albany, Troy and Schenectady high schools who have a B average, want to go to college and are eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program. 

Students are identified at the end of their freshman year and paired with a mentor who is expected to meet with them during the next three years of high school and stay in touch with them through their first year of college. 

Right now, there are 209 students in the program — 115 college students, and 94 high school students. Forty-five percent of these students are first-generation college students. 

Seventeen-year-old Kayla Sanchez is a first-generation student who hopes to study nursing at Russell Sage next fall. 

“I’m waiting on financial aid,” she told me. 

Sanchez credited her Sponsor-A-Scholar mentor with keeping her on task — “I’m a procrastinator” — calming her by taking her out to eat and for pedicures and helping her with college applications. Her mother was supportive, but had never attended college. 

“It was a new experience for both me and my mom, and it was hard for both of us,” Sanchez said. 

All of the students I spoke with gathered the information needed for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — a key financial aid document — and filled out the form themselves. My college-educated parents took care of the FAFSA for me — an advantage I now realize that peers from less-educated families might not have had. 

Capital Region Sponsor-A-Scholar is invaluable to the students it serves, in large part because it ensures these crucial forms get filled out and submitted on time.  

If I have any complaint about the program, it’s that it can’t serve all of the students who might benefit from it. 

There are a lot of first-generation students in the Capital Region. 

They’re quite capable of succeeding in college, but they might need a little extra help. As a society, we owe it to them to provide it. 

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