By Kimberly Chinchilla
To be privileged and to focus solely on college has been a dream for many First Generation Latino students.
Many first gen Latinos face financial barriers, causing them to take longer to graduate.
College isn’t always the first option after graduating high school, a job is. For some it is graduating from a part-time to a full-time job. The question isn’t what you will study, but how you can help provide for your family.
First gen student Karen Leon, attended University of California, Santa Barbara but struggled financially. She began at East Los Angeles College in the fall of 2017.
“I wasn’t privileged, that’s what made it hard being in Santa Barbara. I had to work full-time so it became a big issue that I was also a full-time student. I was struggling in between two lives. My bills weren’t going to wait for me and school wasn’t going to either. It was hard keeping track of both,” she said.
She transferred to ELAC because she would be able to work full-time and attend college. Though it would take her longer, she felt it was the only option.
Many Latino students are born into non-English speaking households, hindering and prolonging their college completion.
“Me, my mom and my dad are the head of the household, we are the ones who manage the money. We want my youngest siblings to finish university in four years, so we are the ones who work,” Leon said.
“I am first gen. I am excited. My two youngest siblings are in universities but they see me pushing through college trying to get to a university,” Leon said.
According to the Institutional Self-Evaluation Report submitted in 2022 by ELAC, in fall 2020, ELAC served over 12,500 First Generation students.
ELAC is a Hispanic Serving Institution, with 79% of its credit enrollments made up of Hispanic/Latino students in fall 2020. The Current Institution-Set Standard for course success is 63%. Hispanic students were less than 1% below the ISS from fall 2020.
Improving College Completion, a briefing kit by Public Policy Institute of California, completion rates are lower at community colleges. Their research shows that only 13 % of community college freshmen receive an associate degree after two years, and 31% do so within three years.”
“In 2018, when I started, I did full-time. I found that it was really hard. I took a lot of breaks, I never thought I would finish. For the past two years I’ve been doing [school] part-time. I am graduating next year.
“I did not have support from my parents, I had to find my way. I started at Pasadena City College in 2015 and it was overwhelming. Another obstacle I [faced] was being a single mother because I had to work to make money to make sure [my daughter] had food and clothes,” Melanie Reynaga, a First Gen student said.
Community colleges are affordable and offer programs leading to a four year university. The highest degree usually offered is an associate’s degree, which can be completed in two years as a full-time student.
However, not every student can be full-time. Not many Latino students can risk leaving their full-time job for courses.
ELAC student Daisy Martinez started college in 2016. “When I first began, I thought I was going to be here for two years. I think becoming a first time mom and COVID backed up a lot of things and lack of resources I didn’t know they had,” Martinez said.
She had no help with childcare and wished she had more guidance [from counselors] from the start.
“I plan on transferring to a four year university in spring of 2024,” Martinez said. She will be applying to Cal State University, Long Beach. Her ultimate goal would be to obtain her Master’s degree.
“With my experience working at ELAC, the number one issue recently is the pandemic. That has taken a hit on people’s anxiety levels, their confidence levels and their diminished ability to follow through.
“We understand there have been a lot of setbacks in the world so that causes setbacks in their education. A lot of times we have people who have to take care of family members, there are people who have to work and bring in enough money to help out the family,” psychology professor Bryan Horowitz said.
In ELAC’s Institutional Self-Evaluation Report, “The percentage of families living below the poverty level in ELAC’s service area is higher than LA County by 5.5% and higher than California by 7.1%. From 2020-2025, 73% were continuing and returning students.”
Many students start as freshman, drop out, take breaks and come back. College can be intimidating because of the financial barriers faced, but the hardest part is sticking and pushing through it.
“That is the beauty of a community college,” says Dr. Cathy Cleaveland, “you can take a little bit longer. That is the point of a community college. You can still accomplish all the quality academic goals of the first two years and take a little longer. Get experience, grow up a little.”
“For the Latino generation, take it step by step, don’t feel discouraged,” says Leon, who will be graduating with four degrees: natural science, social science, psychology and bio sci.
Though it may take many First Gen Latino students longer than two years to complete their first degree, it is possible. Despite the financial barriers they face, they are not alone.