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How Insufficient Resources Feed the Pressure to Graduate

Some Latinx students are balancing family expectations and dreams as well as extra workloads while they pursue higher education.

September 23, 2021
Karla Arroyo headshot

Karla Arroyo

Community Manager, Group SJR

Karla Arroyo headshot

Karla Arroyo

Community Manager, Group SJR

It's easy to discuss the triumphs of first-generation college students, but what about the challenges they endure, especially those who are children of immigrants? They face the pressure to get a college education, afford it, and land a fulfilling career that’ll finally make ends meet for their parents, who made great sacrifices to come to the U.S.

As a child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, dropping out of college for me means giving up on their dream of creating a better life than they had. This type of situation adds to the burden on first-gen students to succeed, even while they’re managing long work hours to afford tuition rates. There is an added stress for those of us whose parents were born in the 1950s and 1960s: They don’t understand the concept of mental health, and they typically avoid seeking counseling or treatment out of the fear of being stigmatized or “bringing shame or unwanted attention to their families,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

My parents separated before my mom moved to the United States in 1994 via a marriage visa with a U.S. citizen. My mom often reflects on moving to the states permanently in order to provide a better life for her family back home, and for me. In fact, this very reason is what motivates many other international residents (especially from countries with oppressive governments) to move to the states.

I graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s in media and communications from the State University of New York at Old Westbury. In 2020, during a global pandemic, I earned a master’s in social journalism from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. 

I achieved the American dream my immigrant parents had envisioned for me. My parents offered me moral support, which I appreciated. But I also needed a community and tools to stay on track academically and financially—support that I received at Old Westbury. I was a part of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a statewide effort that grants historically disadvantaged students access to college. Through the program, I was assigned an academic advisor, financial assistance, and a new group of people who I still consider my “EOP family.” Most of my tuition was paid for, and I had a group of mentors who constantly monitored my academic and emotional well-being. It was a blessing.

However, not every college student can relate to this experience, especially those who are Black or brown. Think about undocumented students, whose education is contingent on government policies. While no federal law prevents undocumented students from enrolling in college, a few states do have restrictions. Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana ban in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alabama and South Carolina forbid these students from enrolling at public colleges and universities.

Support Matters for Students’ Academic Success

Average college tuition costs have increased from $17,045 in 2008-09 to $24,623 in 2018-19—about 44% higher, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Taking out federal loans to afford college may seem like an initial option, but not for those who don’t qualify due to their legal status. That question of how they will pay for college can affect the mental health of these students, leaving them to worry about whether their legal status will prevent them from finishing college or landing a job once they graduate.

I recently spoke with an undocumented student who attends the City College of New York. He is classified as a junior, but he has been at the school for five years because of financial hardship. Because of his legal status, he has had to pay for school out of his own pocket. He had to take multiple breaks from college because he couldn’t afford the tuition all at once. 

“The on and off from college throws you out of an academic rhythm,” said the student, who asked that his name not be used.

“It sucks to see everyone already working, it sucks to see everyone come and go. But, the sacrifices that our parents made to get us here are more than this college thing.”

Anonymous college student

He has re-enrolled in college and taken an hourly job at a hardware store. He tries to only work on the weekends so he can focus on his studies while still saving for his tuition. But during the summer, he works six or seven days a week to make ends meet.

“If I don’t have the financial resources to pay for my previous semester, then [the school] doesn’t let me register for my next semester until my balance is cleared,” the student said. “Some of my friends are basically getting paid to go to college. I don’t really have that advantage so I have to manage my money differently,” he added.

He often feels overwhelmed at the thought of finding a job upon graduation. He mentions that the school’s advisors are accessible but he feels they are not very understanding, so he continues his long shifts at the hardware store to fund his education and finds at least four hours a day to study. As an undocumented student, landing internships is another challenge in itself, but he continues to aim for a return on his investment.

“It sucks to see everyone already working, it sucks to see everyone come and go,” the student said. “But, the sacrifices that our parents made to get us here are more than this college thing.”

Institutions should conduct mental health screenings for incoming students so they can be prepared for what the student may encounter, such as feeling isolated due to their background. If a student is likely to struggle due to their cultural or financial background, the school should make resources openly available and provide the support the student needs to stay on track. For instance, the undocumented CUNY student recalls getting emails about job opportunities from the school’s career center, but most of the openings required U.S. citizenship. A school that was keeping students’ emotional and practical needs in mind would avoid sending undocumented students information about jobs for which they do not qualify.

Costs Erect Barriers to College Completion

Social class plays a large role in Latinx students’ difficulties with enrolling in or finishing college. Oftentimes, some students who attend predominantly white institutions or Ivy League schools may have been admitted because of family members (typically wealthy) who have connections to the school. 

I didn’t have that luxury. I had difficult conversations with my mother about what information can go on my application, such as her marriage status, which would exclude my biological father from the application. This worried me and made me feel insecure about whether I was going to be able to attend college or not. What if my mom’s marriage visa situation was not conventional enough for a state college? Was I going to qualify for loans, especially since my parents couldn’t afford to put me through college?

“While tuition costs can make Latinx college students take a few detours, a lot of us still want to fulfill our parents’ dreams and graduate college and set a new standard for the generations to come.”

Karla Arroyo

Community Manager, Group SJR

I ended up taking out loans to pay for my room and board because I wanted a college experience, and commuting from the city would eventually become more expensive. These costs didn’t necessarily stress me out as a student, but they now stress me out as an adult who owes approximately $70,000 in loans.

I spoke with another Latinx college student who attended a small, residential liberal arts school in upstate New York where most students were Black or brown. They took on three part-time jobs to pay their tuition, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to return home to New York City. By then, they had an outstanding tuition balance of $10,000, which they had to pay or else they couldn’t graduate on time (they were a senior).

They asked their mother to take out a personal loan, but she could not because she had already maxed out her credit. They withdrew from school instead. They recalled spending nights wondering how they were going to pay off the tuition balance. Eventually, the debt went into collections. “I’m first-gen, I don’t know how financial aid works,” they said. 

The student attempted to appeal the remaining balance despite the challenges of the pandemic and having to care for their father, who contracted COVID-19. The school’s appeal process favors students with extraneous circumstances, such as terminal illnesses or death. According to the college, the appeal was rejected because the student didn’t supply enough evidence.

The student felt like the appeal process gave them a voice, but when it got denied, they felt defeated. “If I had circumstances that fit the requirements, why say it’s unjustifiable?” the student asked. “I really fell into a quarter-life crisis. I was in isolation—no work, no school. I had post-grad depression without the degree.”

Navigating college as an underprivileged first-gen student is already a major challenge in itself, especially when your parents don’t really understand how financial aid works. College affordability can get in the way of the American dream your immigrant parents set for you if you (or they) aren’t financially stable. The City College student doesn’t see withdrawing from college as an option, so he works long hours to get back on track in school and finally graduate. The student at the liberal arts school will be completing their degree next semester at a community college, which is significantly cheaper than their initial institution. 

While tuition costs can make Latinx college students take a few detours, a lot of us still want to fulfill our parents’ dreams and graduate college and set a new standard for the generations to come. ¡Pa ‘lante!

Karla Arroyo is a community manager at Group SJR and a journalist who leads the Deeper Than Hair newsletter as part of the CROWN Campaign. She earned her master's degree in social journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York and her bachelor's degree in media and communications from the State University of New York at Old Westbury. She is Dominican, raised and based in New York City, and loves all things fitness.


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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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