A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to UC Merced: First Generation College Stories in Unexpected Place

The last interviews we have planned on this trip are at UC Merced.

We are staying in a ranch in Madera, about 45 miles from Merced. It’s really far from civilization- beautiful and remote. It’s a big house, with rooms and suites rented to different guests.

We arrived this evening; our interviews at UC Merced are scheduled for tomorrow.

When we entered the living room of the house, we were greeted by an energetic young couple who were vacationing here. They were friendly and eager to chat. They even offered to share the cookies they had just baked.

Mal’Shanay and Maurice got married in November. They were winding down a weeklong vacation, their first together. They are 21 and 22, respectively. Maurice is in the military and has been stationed in Vilseck, Germany for most of the past three years.

They were interested in us and what we were doing here. I explained the First Gen College project and Mal’Shanay jumped right in.

Katka quickly brought out her camera.

Mal’Shanay is a first generation college student who went to Long Beach City College (LBCC). Growing up she knew she wanted to go to college. She wants a career rather than simply a job. But she had no one in her family to guide her. Her parents were teens when she was born, and didn’t complete high school.

She described feeling overwhelmed trying to find her way and figure out what she needed to know. LBCC was large and anonymous, and she found it hard to find the answers she needed, until she connected with a professor who acted as a mentor to her, answering questions, offering advice, and guiding her through the process.

Mal’Shanay is proud to be a college student. Since Maurice is being transferred to Colorado, Mal'Shanay plans to continue her education when they move there.

Maurice, who graduated high school a year before Mal’Shanay, had thought about going to community college after high school. But he found the bureaucracy and everything that was involved complicated and confusing, so he got a job instead, and eventually enlisted in the army. Inspired and encouraged by Mal’Shanay, he hopes to enroll in college when he finishes his service, knowing that she will help him find his way.

This young couple’s eagerness to talk about their experiences, fears and hopes for college and their futures, mirrors what we heard from the young people we interviewed all along this Northern California college road trip,

Though we had no interviews scheduled for today, in a remote place on a ranch in Central California, the first gen college story found us.

These stories are everywhere.

They are stories of uncertainty and taking a risk. Stories of challenges and of resilience. Stories of jumping in over your head, and trying/ hoping to learn to swim. It’s not easy, and people often doubt themselves along the way. Not everyone persists. Those who do feel strongly that anyone can, and that it is worth all the hardship they faced along the way. They appreciate the ways that college has ushered them into adulthood. For some, it has been an abrupt change while for others, it has eased their way into independence.

All the young people we’ve spoken to are grateful for the ways that college has helped them learn about themselves, and for the ways that it has opened up their worlds, and their sense of what’s possible.

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