Editor faces uphill battle as first-generation college student

Growing up I was always told that I was going to go to college, even if it wasn’t clear how my family was going to pay for it. Nobody else in my family had ever gone to college; even still, it was treated as my default path in life, and I never really questioned why I should or shouldn't go. In that sense, I spent the majority of my upbringing taking it for granted. Now, as I enter my senior year of high school and begin college applications, I'm faced with the real difficulties of being a first-generation college student—and the burden of succeeding where my parents did not.

My entire family is from California, more specifically Santa Cruz, a popular surf town near the Bay Area. Both of my parents went to high school there, but my mom dropped out of high school her junior year, and completed her GED a few years later. My dad finished high school, but not without his own share of difficulties, and neither of my parents were able to attend college—in part due to lack of affordability, but also a lack of information given to them. Nobody in my family encouraged them to go, so my parents resorted to working a variety of odd jobs that were barely enough to pay the bills. At one point before I was born, my parents were living out of their car.

My parents’ lack of a college education was exacerbated by the fact that Santa Cruz is considered to be the least affordable town in the United States. The slow crawl of gentrification has made the housing market astronomically expensive, even more so in 2023 than it was in 2005, when I was born. My childhood consisted of moving between my grandparents’ house, cheap apartments, and houses beyond the outskirts of the town, tucked away in the redwood forests. Eventually, my parents were unable to make enough money to continue living in the town they had grown up in. We fled to Austin, where my aunt had moved months earlier.

Somehow both of my parents managed to make it work in this new state. We were able to afford a house to rent, which my parents would go on to purchase a few years later. My dad became a self-taught programmer and has worked in web development ever since. My mom became an events coordinator for a multinational corporation. Even though they lacked college degrees, my parents formed strong careers and a new life for us. I only saw how they succeeded; I didn't understand how difficult it had been for them.

As I've grown older, though, I've become aware that my parents had to work much harder than most people in order to surpass the limitations of not having a higher education. Despite the fact they are intelligent, hard workers with decades of experience, my parents have been denied many opportunities because they don't have a college degree—even when they have proved their merit. This is not uncommon whatsoever, and the United States education system is designed this way to keep poor people in poverty. My parents are the exception. This means I've been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to be the first person in my family to go to college, to have a chance of discovering the world of possibilities locked behind a degree. My parents have always regretted not going to college, and don't want me to fight as hard as they did to get somewhere in life. It's a wonderful thing they've done for me. But it's also made me more anxious than ever before.

Even though my parents have successfully navigated us to the middle class, granting me a shot at college, there are even more barriers to my success. I don't have a college fund. Nobody in my family understands how admissions, scholarships, or the SAT works. If I don’t earn enough in scholarships or aid, I won’t be able to attend college without bankrupting my family. All of these issues have been compounding in my mind, and I’m anticipating a very stressful first semester of senior year. But it shouldn’t be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. There needs to be better support for first-generation college students, and schools need to invest more in educating students on the college admissions process before their senior year even begins. Then, hopefully, the cycle can be broken.