Although we came from different backgrounds, we are often reminded that as first-generation students from immigrant households, our paths to Georgetown University shared many similarities.
Growing up, our parents constantly reminded us about the importance of obtaining an education. We would hear our moms say, “The two happiest days of my life will be the day my children were born and the day they graduate from college.”
Raised by immigrant parents who never had the opportunity to pursue higher education, the priority for us and our siblings was always extremely clear. The ultimate goal, as inspired by our parents, was to get into college. However, that goal became so pervasive for us that achieving it became life’s sole purpose and focus. We never had room to think about what would happen during college — let alone after.
When we began our college careers at Georgetown, the goal shifted from receiving an acceptance letter to receiving a diploma. Our freshman years were extremely difficult. The courses were 10 times more intense than high school courses, and as the youngest — and first in the family to leave home — we often felt homesick. Furthermore, we found ourselves struggling to find a community to identify with on campus.
As first-generation students, we are not afforded the same expectations and clear paths to success as many of our Georgetown peers. This institutional awareness — and our lack of it upon arriving to campus — contributes heavily to a knowledge gap between us and our non-first-generation counterparts.
The knowledge gap is the divide between what students should know to have a successful undergraduate career and what they actually know. First-generation and low-income students experience a wider knowledge gap, as they often start with less background knowledge of the opportunities a college education can truly offer, according to Forbes. Many first-generation students do not start their college experiences with the same context built into traditional educational circles. As a result, we lack the initial direction to guide us toward success on campus.
The knowledge gap affects first-generation students well before they step foot on a college campus. Throughout high school, first-generation students struggle to find resources to help them apply to a respectable school, or any school for that matter, attain much-needed scholarships and grants and determine whether college is actually worth going to in the first place. If we, as first-generation college students, succeed in overcoming these obstacles and ultimately decide to attend college, we are confronted with even greater ambiguity.
Upon our arrival to campus, we understood we are here to earn our degrees. But what was to follow? Only after fully realizing and accepting that we will actually graduate do we begin to think about our careers. Then, we encounter the unfamiliarity of networking and applying for jobs, the fact that internships are vital for landing a job after graduation and the struggle of finding jobs that are actually available.
Without a set community, first-generation students often face these struggles alone. Many universities have yet to create spaces for first-generation students on their campuses; however, those that have successfully created these communities are well on their way to closing the knowledge gap.
The Georgetown Scholarship Program has proven that the creation of these spaces leads to higher success among first-generation students by creating a center on campus dedicated to providing academic, professional and personal support. Today, GSP proudly holds a graduation rate of 96.4 percent, compared to the national average of 24.9 percent for first-generation students and 10.9 percent for students who are both first generation and low income, according to a 2011 Pell Grant Institute study.
These efforts are not about offering everyone the same job or even the same college experience. Rather, programs like GSP work toward providing everyone the same opportunity to pursue their own passions. The duty of each higher-ed institution is to foster a community of learning; by extension, it must also create a community for its first-generation students to break down barriers that hinder their abilities to effectively learn and succeed. Through GSP, we have witnessed that investment in supporting and empowering students like us leads to an immeasurable impact on our success and enables us to create our own futures.
As graduating seniors, we have realized that our “ultimate goal” is not merely to graduate and obtain that diploma. Today, we define our ultimate goal as having the power to pave our own paths: to take back our agency, to independently choose our own careers and vocations and to turn our families’ dreams into a reality during our lifetimes and into a precedent for future generations.
Renzo Reyes is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. Luis Sorto is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. GSP offers support services to over 650 low-income and/or first-generation college students. Proud to Be GSP appears online every other Tuesday.