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  • Dr. Patricia A. Farrell

I Should Have Received More Help

Updated: Jul 21, 2019


Scores of students flow into the higher education system each year, a river of neophytes, the majority of them with their eyes wide and their minds adazzle with the thought of the careers and the lives before them. It is a heady time in their lives and many, if not most, will find within those first few days that something was missing in their life experience; guidance and a timeframe. The schools can be faulted here, too, and I’m not talking about the high schools, but the colleges and the universities.


I write from experience and now I am incorporating the experience of others (one being “The Forest for the Trees”) into this blog because older eyes need to pay attention to this growing dilemma. How many of this new cohort will be the first ones in their families to attend college?


The article in The Atlantic lays out some of the problems for these first-timers:

Harry’s difficult adjustment is just one example of the many obstacles first-generation and minority students confront each year that don’t typically plague their second- and third-generation peers. Extensive studies show that low-income and first-generation students are more likely to be academically behind, sometimes several years in core subjects. They’re more likely to live at home or off-campus. They’re less likely to have gained AP credit and more likely to have to take uncredited remedial courses. And they’re more likely to face serious financial hurdles.”


Where are the “failures,” and by that I do not mean on the part of the students, and why was it so? Families weren’t part of these “failures” because they, too, had stars in their eyes when it came to someone in their family finally going to COLLEGE. It was the Hollywood sign of their existence as parents worked multiple jobs to keep all of their kids in high school to graduation as they provided for all the other necessities. No, truly, the families, whether they were parents, relatives or older siblings sacrificing their dreams, were not part of the failures. But no one explained or told the students or them, either, the reality of college, the new life they would find there and the often lack of attention exhibited by staff.


The staff have become too complacent in shuffling through the children of the middle-class to see that these students needed more and that the “more” might be in simple, inobtrusive things like selecting and buying textbooks. Then, too, haughty admissions personnel can take every opportunity to look down on these underprivileged students as being likely to drop out rather than graduate. It colors their perception without anyone realizing the need for a re-education and a sensitization to the needs of these students. Years in a counseling office doesn’t necessarily translate into insightful assistance.


Counseling offices, unfamiliar with the culture and the language of the new students, assume that what they’ve learned in their own education is sufficient to be applied to these students. It’s not. The colorblindness is not confined to color but spreads across the entire spectrum of lower-income students who are the first in their families to attend college.


Again, from my own experience as the first to attend college, I found myself sitting across from college staff, in two separate instances at two different colleges, where I was treated disrespectfully and I’m not a person of color.

The first woman looked at my letters of recommendation and found a spelling error in the hand-written letter from my high school English teacher. “Look at this,” she said as she pointed to the letter and glared at me. “Here’s a spelling error from your English teacher!” Was I shocked? No, let’s say I was mortified. Not content with this salvo at my self-esteem, she went on.


“You didn’t take the SATs, did you?” She asked this knowing that I hadn’t because I never intended to go to college; it wasn’t a family path to “work.” We were expected to leave high school at 16, get our working papers and go to work for heaven-on-earth, the phone company. I was to be the first to break out of this cycle of low-wage jobs, thanks to an older sister who insisted that I would go to college. My mother hadn’t graduated from elementary school, but that’s another story.


“Well, we do have a test you can take which, if you pass, we will accept in place of the SATs.” Turning in her chair, she pulled out a schedule, gave me a date and told me where I was to present myself for this horrifying experience. Yes, it was horrifying because I sailed through the vocabulary, history, written and reading comprehension but gave up on the math. Totally demoralized and thinking I was never going to this or any other college, I walked up to the monitor at the desk, placed my exam booklet face down, signed the sheet and left.


I waited in dread for the letter that would come in which they would validate my ineptitude and inability to attend college. The days came and went and each time the mailman left a letter I knew it meant my doom. It was as though I were waiting to receive the date for my funeral.


Then, it arrived. I didn’t want to open it, but I forced myself. I had heard all about those “we regret to inform you” letters and I knew this was mine, but it wasn’t. I passed and they were accepting me. Accepted, I was accepted? I’d given up on the math and still they gave me a pass? It was unbelievable but there were more surprises to come.

I should say that this college-acceptance period actually took place after I had graduated from high school and was working full-time. So, I would have to be an evening student and I’d have to take a minimum of 14 credits, with a B+, to be given matriculated status. Until then, I was on the college equivalent of “probation” otherwise known as non-matric.


For whatever reason, another admissions person was to cross my path in my journey to a BA degree and this one, too, took the opportunity to shoot some arrows into my self-esteem. I was working, unbelievably, as an editorial assistant (don’t ask). Seeing this on the form I had to fill out, she looked at me and said, “You should be very happy about this. I don’t know how you got it.” Yes, add that emphasis because she sure did. Another long story for another time.


Aside from these two less-than-helpful women, I knew nothing about buying books and even registering for classes was an incredibly tortuous task. Before personal computers and advances in registration, students lined up in incredibly long lines snaking up the staircases in the college gym to the basketball court where we ran to a table with a course we needed.


In the gym, tables lined the perimeter and student with cardboard boxes full of punch cards waited for the advancing hoard. We’d get a punch card and run to another line to stand and wait to see if it were still accepting students. If it was filled, your heart sunk to the floor as you tried to juggle your schedule to fit in something you could use to satisfy your 128-credits requirement for graduation. It didn’t always work, so summer school was for most years on the table for me. Over-tallies weren’t always granted and, if you wanted one, you had to go hat-in-hand to the professor to beg admission to the class.


Professors with tenure didn’t always take pity on students and held fast to their course sizes. I had an advisor in post-graduate school who refused to be on my dissertation committee because he already had 17 students and he wasn’t accepting any more. In coming years, doctoral students would attempt to have him reprimanded for his actions; it didn’t work. He’s still there.


Forms that needed to be signed by “advisors” (they never gave me advice) had to be filled out in advance and with you and then you had to hunt the advisor down. I felt like a hired gun. Again, no consideration and no mention that you needed to have the form completed and with you at all times in the happy circumstance that they’d be in their office when they were scheduled to be there.


BTW, I had to supply a round-trip plane ticket to a member of my dissertation committee who refused to be at my defense for my degree if she didn’t get it. Thank God for Amex. Another said he was going to a conference in Colorado, so he wouldn’t be there and the third said she’d only come on a specific day. If I couldn’t schedule it for that day, she wasn’t coming. And SHE WAS MY CHAIR!


Textbooks, I learned in my first evening class, weren’t bought after the instructor gave out the curriculum sheet and the assignments. These books (always buy good used ones I learned) were bought before you ever went to class. If the instructor changed the books which the bookstore had been led to believe were being used, you were in another quandary. Now you had to ask for a refund of these used books and be sure you had your receipt, or they’d try to give you one-third of the price of the book. The bookstore only accepted cash or checks, so students were walking around like targets for crooks who knew full-well there was money in those pockets and purses.


One happy circumstance did occur, well, two for sure. The first was when my name was called out at a graduation awards ceremony for receiving an award for the highest grades in sociology. The man giving the award, the chair of the sociology department, looked at me in disbelief; he’d never met me.


The second happy circumstance was when an older dean called me into his office. I thought for sure I was going to receive some bad news; I wasn’t. “We’ve got some scholarship money left,” he started out, “and I think you should have it.” I was floored. A kindly older man, he smiled, gave me a form for the registrar and went back to his desk. Scholarship money? Where did that come from? I had no idea I could get anything but student loans. My advisors certainly never mentioned it.


The moral of this blog is that first-in-the-family college students can make it, but it takes determination and a bit of help and understanding from those who work in the colleges on any level. We can’t afford to lose all that brainpower.

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DR. PATRICIA A. FARRELL