By Vishakha Mathur
Scant knowledge of the language, undocumented status, and absence of understanding of what it takes to go to college – these are the three most prominent challenges faced by first-generation Hispanic college students in the United States.
Research by The University of Texas found 62 percent of the Hispanic college students in 2012 were first-generation collegegoers. For these students, being the first impacts not just them but their families as it is a new experience for everyone. However, each story is unique.
The language barrier: Ana Caldelon
Without any knowledge of English language, at the age of 15, Ana Caldelon was thrown into the U.S. education system after her parents moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States.
Dazed and confused with the use of a foreign language around her, she said she was forced to take a step back. “When I came here, I did not know English. I did not know the language spoken here…they pushed me back. I was supposed to be in 11th grade, and they put me in 10th grade,” Caldelon said.
Caldelon graduated from Brighton High School in 2014. However, during the three years that she was there she said she wasn’t quite able to learn the language. With the help of a non-profit organization, Sociedad Latina, she was able to make the transition from her high school to Bunker Hill Community College.
“That is why I went to a community college because you know it will be easier for me to know about the language and also do my career,” Caldelon said. “It helped me a lot but it was hard. It was hard since I was placed in an English level that was not college-level English. So I had to study very hard to be able to go to that school.”
At Bunker Hill, Caldelon took multiple classes to improve her knowledge and use of English, while she was a psychology major.
While Caldelon struggled with language in school, her troubles didn’t just end there. Being the first one in her family to go to college, she was left to figure out the process on her own. “It was hard because my mum had a job, and my father also had a job. So when I was in school, whenever there was an open house, they would never be able to go for it because of the time,” Caldelon said.
“But we always talk, and they would say, ‘If you need anything, I’m here.’ But you know, it is cool because my mum supports me. She cooks, and every time I come home, I find mum. That is really important for a kid to find food when they come from school. So I think that is a way of her supporting me. If I had a question, she would help me but it is hard because, you know, she doesn’t herself know the language and my father did not know either. So I was learning the language but, you know, it is difficult.”
Caldelon was able to find the help she needed to go to college at Sociedad Latina. She met advisors who helped her fill her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), work out her finances, as well as help her pick her classes. She transferred from Bunker Hill to UMass Boston in spring 2017 and is getting her degree in psychology.
“I have two more years left. So after that, I want to do my master’s. I don’t know if I want to do it at UMass or if I want to go to another school. It all depends,” Caldelon said.
Eldest of the five: Ithzel Polanco
For Ithzel Polanco, there was never a question whether she was going to go to college or not. As the first child of a couple that did not go to college themselves, she said it was their mission to send all of their five children to college.
“We worked hard because our goal was for all of our kids to go to college so that they would have opportunities we never had,” said Guadalupe Polanco, Ithzel’s mother.
Dedicated to getting her education and with support from her parents, Ithzel Polenco attended Lock Haven University and graduated with bachelor’s degree in international studies in 2008. She then went on to pursue her master’s degree at Tsinghua University in China, where she received her Masters in Public Administration from the School of Public Policy and Management in International Development in 2013.
She said her educational experience had an impact on her family. Conflicts fuelled by the lack of knowledge of the U.S. education system are a thing of the past. “I am able to look for information on my own and provide information to my siblings or my parents too,” Ithzel Polenco said.
“ The way to deal with life situation as a whole has really changed from their generation to mine. We use to have so many conflicts growing up, especially when it came to my education just because they did not understand how things work.”
Having their first born going to college, equipped both of Ithzel’s parents to better prepare their other children for higher education. They provided greater assistance to her sister, Lupita Polanco, in her transition to college. “For example, my mom chose the major she would study… or push her towards a major,” Ithzel Polenco said.
Their experience with their elder children further helped them to prepare their youngest one, Edgar Polanco. At the age of 16, he is already preparing to go to college by taking college-prep courses.
Edgar Polenco even considers his sister to be an inspiration. “I was too young to realize she was even in college, but, looking back I realize it must have been tough so I guess it is a little inspiring,” he said.
Being undocumented: Daylin Dominguez
With a 4.0 GPA as a senior in East Boston High School, Daylin Dominguez couldn’t make it to any college of his choice, all because of his legal status. Discouraged and dissapointed, he felt like he shouldn’t have applied to go to college in first place.
With encouragement and suggestions from his career advisors and teachers in school, Dominguez went to a career fair and met the admissions staff at North Shore Community College.
“They told me to apply for scholarships. That is completely blind, they don’t look at your legal status. I got three scholarships and that was a good start for me,” he said.
At North Shore, he is taking classes in the field of engineering. From there, Dominguez was able to secure further scholarships that motivated him to keep going to college.
In the beginning, his father was not in complete favor of him going to college. “He knew I was undocumented and he was like ‘why would you go that’s going to expose you to anything. Now people know you are undocumented’,” Dominguez said. But eventually, he convinced his father otherwise.
Dominguez has a keen interest in engineering and after graduating from college wants to work on the development of eco-friendly technologies.
The first one to graduate: Perla Melo
Perla Melo’s three older sisters went to college but none of them graduated. She knew she has to be the first one in her family to get a college degree.
“Being the first generation in my family is overwhelming because I feel like I have a lot of people depending on me. But not only that, I also expect myself to have more opportunities for me,” Melo said.
As Melo puts it, none of her sisters graduated because “life happened,” but as she prepared to enter college, she knew the expectations her family had for her were much higher.
“Me going to school is not about the money. I am actually going to become someone,” Melo said. “So it is overwhelming because everyone is going to be like ‘if she doesn’t graduate then nobody has graduated.’ So that someone in the family has to go to college and do something. That way it can continue on.”
But Melo did not receive the help she needed from them.
During her time at Bunker Hill Community College this year, Melo said she always wanted to be in the medical field. However, during her first year in college, she pivoted from one career choice to another. She explored her future in early childhood, clinical psychology and finally landed on radiology.
She is now transferring to Suffolk University in fall 2017, with a $65,000 scholarship, where she will pursue her interest in radiology.
Her interest in getting a degree and education has encouraged her sisters to go back to school as well. “After I got my associate’s degree, my sister who got pregnant while she was in college and my sister who use to party a lot, actually applied to Bunker Hill,” Melo said.