The Mysteries of College

When it comes to college, what do middle and high school students want to know? What do they wonder about? Worry about? Who can they ask? First Gen College wanted to know, and wanted to help.

This spring, we brought first gen college students into several middle and high school classes to tell their stories, share their experiences and answer some of the students’ questions.

Many of these 8th-12th grade students have been thinking and talking about college for some time. Some were in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Others were in AVID (a curricular program preparing underserved students for college). We also talked to some classes of students who weren’t so engaged or earnest about college.

A number of the classes have teachers who are first gen college grads, and who can certainly articulate their experiences. But there’s something different and special, about getting to talk to near-peers (young people just a few years older than you are) who are still navigating their own college experience.

To youth, the first gen college students don’t appear to be full adults yet. They are easier to relate to than teachers. And their candor about their struggles in college, the fact that they are works in progress, seemed to really resonate with the students.

What’s College Really Like?

We asked the middle and high school students to write their questions- practical, petty, esoteric, and existential- on slips of paper, which were then shared with the class. We call these questions the Mysteries of College.

Their questions captured an awareness that going to college is a venture into the unknown, and that it can come with uncertainty, and some anxiety. Here are some of their questions:

  • How does it feel to be the first person to go to college from your family?

  • Is college fun?

  • How did your first day of college feel?

  • What was hardest about college?

  • Is it stressful?

They also had very practical questions about going to a new kind of place:

  • How do you find the classes that you have to go to?

  • Do you need to do community service in college?

  • Do you have to wake up early for college?

  • Do colleges have good wifi?

  • How is the food?

There were some questions that struck at the heart of some the larger discourse about higher education:

  • How much diversity is there in college?

  • How are you able to pay all your costs?

Some students were concerned about the challenges they would face in the path to and through college:

  • If you do really bad one year in high school can you still be accepted to a good college?

  • What are the main struggles everyone might go through when they get to college?

  • What do you do to stay focused in school and not slack off?

And students wondered about their own paths, and about how they would find their way:

  • What will I study in college?

  • How will I pay for college?

  • How do you decide a career?

  • Will I graduate from college?

The Results

The workshops, while structured, were designed to be flexible and responsive to the students in the room. The college students shared their memories of being middle and high school students, their academics, and their thoughts about college. They also shared their experiences in college, and engaged in a dialogue with students about their questions and concerns.

The workshops were intended to answer some of the students’ questions, and encourage them to continue to ask questions and seek answers. It was an opportunity for them to reflect on their hopes, fears, and passions, and hopefully, to make college seem more attainable and real for them.

Student feedback about the workshop let us know that we accomplished our goals. Here are some of their comments:

  • They explained many things I wondered about college.

  • I will take your life experiences and follow my dream.

  • Keep inspiring kids to go to college. I sincerely appreciate your wonderful presentation.

  • I didn’t know most of these things.

  • It gave me hope of going to college.

  • They are like me and they did go to college.

  • I got inspired to keep trying and not give up.

And, our favorite: “They encouraged us to keep an open mind for college. It honestly sounds way more interesting now, and I for sure wanna go.”

I think we are on to something.

This was a pilot program. Based on the feedback from teachers and students, we would love to be able to offer it in a broader way next year. In order to move beyond the pilot and roll it out for real, we need to work out some kinks, figure out logistics, and raise funds to underwrite it. It’s clear that the potential is there.

Can you help us bring First Gen College Conversations to LA area public school classes in the fall? Please consider making a tax deductible donation.


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Shifra Teitelbaum, EdD | shifra@firstgencollege.me  |  (323) 393-0806              

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