Lucia Gonzalez graduated second in her class at her East Palo Alto high school. In a city where only 7 percent of the adults have a high school diploma and where 64 percent of the Latino and 71 percent of African American students are not on track for college, expectations are low. “People praise me because I am the exception, because I didn’t get pregnant in high school, because I didn’t get pushed out,” she says. She doesn’t think she should be praised; she says expectations were just different in her home.

Gonzalez’s parents never went to college. Her father works in a restaurant and her mother cleans houses. They wanted more for their daughter. “Because they’re working class, people look down on us and are so rude,” Gonzalez says. College became a dream her parents passed on to her. “There was no question that I would go to college.”

Her parents made sure she got into a high school that promised college prep classes. Her small charter school, East Palo Alto Academy, focused on providing the A-G requirements, the 15 high school courses students need to be eligible for California’s public universities. Gonzalez did exactly what was requested of her and did it well — well enough to be receive a full scholarship.

And still her most-likely-to-succeed profile took on a different light when she arrived at college. At Loyola Marymount University, a medium-sized private school in Southern California, she faced obstacles she’d never dreamed of.

Going it alone

The first among them: culture shock. The campus of about 9,000 mostly white and well-to-do students introduced Gonzalez to a new and uneasy reality. As a Latina from working-class family growing up in a mostly Hispanic low-income town, Gonzalez was used to being surrounded by friends and family with shared values and similar experiences. Suddenly, she felt alone, and different from the people around her.

“I compared myself a lot to the students on campus, specifically a lot of students who came from white backgrounds,” Gonzalez says.

The isolation and culture clash Gonzalez experienced is all too common. According to a UCLA survey, only 20 percent of the undergraduates attending private or public universities are first-generation students. Of those, about 50 percent are low-income, putting them in the minority in the student population.

“There’s a social divide there that no one wants to talk about,” says Sylvia Hurtado, a UCLA professor who studies how students from diverse families, including low-income and first-generation, transition to college. Feeling like an outsider in everything from their clothes to their family backgrounds can cause stress and anxiety for first-to-college kids.

The culture clash Gonzalez experienced was made greater by her family’s financial limitations. “I [didn’t] have any family in the area,” Gonzalez recalls. “My parents couldn’t drop me off. So I moved in by myself, got settled by myself.” Gonzalez is a sophomore and her parents have yet to see her university campus because of the cost of visiting.

Not quite ready for college

High school had been easy for Gonzalez. She met her deadlines and got A’s on her assignments. But the classes failed to challenge her. She says there were so many different academic levels in her classes that the teachers focused mostly on supporting struggling students.

This proved to be a major disadvantage when she got to college. She felt insecure about her ability to do math since there had been no way to study advanced math in high school. And she felt unprepared for college-level reading and writing. “I don’t think I was ready for all of the reading and the amount of papers I had to write,” she says. “It was really overwhelming compared to high school.”

Many of Gonzalez’s new classmates had attended expensive private high schools and benefited from Advanced Placement courses, tutors, and college prep courses. “My high school did not provide AP courses; we only had one, AP Spanish.” She believes the lack of advanced classes prevented her from developing the analytical skills she needed in college.

Gonzalez and her parents had assumed the A-G courses had prepared her for any college that would admit her, but according to Hurtado, A-G only guarantees the basics of college preparation. “Getting access to AP courses is very important now for students who are interested in more selective universities,” she says.

Gonzalez’s experience is not unique. A recent survey from Achieve says approximately 50 percent of recent high school graduates report gaps in preparation for college work.

Gonzalez says she now wishes she’d had the nerve to speak up and ask her teachers for more challenging work. “If schools aren’t necessarily providing students with the support that they need, it’s really up to the student to demand more specific attention.”

From outsider to leader

Unlike many other first-to-college students, Gonzalez was able to find support to help her through a difficult first year. She connected with a network of students and faculty who are also first-generation college students through a program designed to help first-generation students adjust to university life. She also sought out resources and the one-on-one academic help she needed. The First to Go program at LMU provided an orientation, academic support, and a mentor, which all helped her finish her first year successfully.

Now, Gonzalez is trying to help the next class of first-generation college students at her school have an easier time than she did. She’s starting her own organization and mentorship program. Working with several offices on campus, her group, Latinos United for Education, will work with high school juniors and seniors to help them apply for colleges. It also will provide information and resources to parents on things like financial aid.

Back home, as her mother looks at high schools for her eighth grade brother, Gonzalez is ready with advice. Her mother wants him to have a better high school experience than her daughter did. Gonzalez’s suggestion? Choose a high school that offers plenty of AP classes and one-on-one tutoring.

Putting your child on the road to college

For every first generation success, there are plenty of students who crumble under the pressure and end up dropping out of college. How can you help your child get to college and stick around to graduate?

  1.  Value your dream. If you want your child to go to college, share the dream. It’s never too early to start talking about higher education as an option.
  2. Create a home for learning. Make sure your child is doing their homework and keeping up in classes between report cards and parent-teacher meetings. Limit TV time, establish routines, and nudge your child to read challenging books outside of school. Look for nonfiction as well as fiction. Ask a teacher or librarian for recommendations. Also, you can use this list as a guide.
  3. Guide your child’s passions. Encourage them to join clubs with positive or academic values. A debate team will build multiple skills for college and career. Gonzalez chose to work in her community teaching electives through a Citizen Schools after-school program. She eventually chose LMU, in part, because its mission closely matched her own interests and beliefs. Also, encourage your kids to try hobbies that challenge their mind, such as chess or robotics, as well as their body.
  4.  Be on the lookout for people who can help turn your child’s dream into a reality. Look for school counselors, helpful teachers, relatives or friends who can be a mentor for your child. Contact professionals in the field that your child has shown an interest in. A mentor can be anyone: an older high school or college student or a neighbor who attended college. Build a network of supporters to talk about your child’s grades, help tutor, or talk to your child’s teachers.
  5. Teach your child to be a squeaky wheel. Make sure your child learns how to communicate with teachers and school staff if they are not being challenged or if they need extra help.
  6. If your child is not being challenged at school, speak up. In California, the A-G requirements are essential for getting into public universities, but they may not be enough to prepare your child for success in college. Are there AP or honors classes? Are community college or online classes available? Are teachers willing to offer extra work if the coursework is too easy for your child? You’ll never find out if you don’t start the conversation.
  7. Look for local and national programs to help. Programs such as GEAR UP, Upward Bound, and Jack Kent Cooke Foundation that can support your child on the road to college. Ask your child and their teachers; they may know of other local programs.
  8. When looking at colleges or universities, try to find those that have pre-college programs and staff aimed at reaching first-generation families and students. Ask whether there are campus groups or clubs for students of other races and ethnicities that will help your child find a community in their new environment.