On Wednesday, February 25, 2015, I sat in the State House amidst more than 150 college students at the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts’ (AICUM) annual Student Financial Aid Advocacy Day. Students from all over the Commonwealth joined at the State House and visited with their legislators to advocate for need-based financial aid programs. After the program speakers concluded their speeches, students put on their advocate hats and funneled out of the Hall of Flags room. It quickly became clear to me during meetings with several legislative offices that the group of Wheelock students had incredible stories to share. For so many students across the Commonwealth, a small increase in the need-based financial aid has an enormous impact. This spoke to the need found among a subset population of the higher education community.
In 2008, 4.5 million students enrolled in postsecondary education were considered low-income and first-generation, making up approximately 24 percent of the undergraduate population according to The Pell Institute. The educational path to a bachelor’s degree for them is long, indirect, and uncertain. Using data from the National Center for Education, it was found that low-income, first-generation students experience less success than their peers right from the start due to a number of challenges ranging from their demographic backgrounds and lack of academic preparation, to their multiple obligations outside of college. In addition, low-income and first-generation students are less likely to be engaged in the academic and social experiences that foster success in college, which is intricately linked to finances and financial aid. Literature reviews and research articles have all expanded on these findings, and yet Massachusetts ranks in the bottom half of all states in the amount of need-based financial aid it provides to college students.
So why should legislators care? The answer lies in the stories students across the country are telling about what access to a bachelor’s degree can do. It not only opens doors for them, it opens doors for entire generations. As a low-income, first generation college student myself raised by a single parent who had emigrated from the Dominican Republic, I heard my story in the midst of hearing the students who shared at the State House last week. My path to a college degree was littered with multiple jobs, night shifts, and weekends returning back home to manage family responsibilities. Despite the challenges, when I walked down that stage on my graduation day, it was not just me who had ‘made it.’ All four generations in my family were walking alongside me entering into a world of opportunities we had been previously shut off from.
When students told their stories to the legislators last Wednesday, it was not only their voice they were using. They were speaking for their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, siblings; all those who came before them and who will come after them. The commonly used Nigerian proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child” rings especially true for first generation students. When legislators invest in a college student, they are unknowingly investing in an entire village.
Annysa Rodriguez is currently pursuing her Masters in Social Work at Boston College with a concentration in Children, Youth, and Families. An advocate for youth, Annysa has worked in numerous capacities from facilitating and running career development workshops to her current position as a College Success Advisor at Steps to Success where she works to enhance the educational outcomes of students. She is thrilled to be delving into more policy related work during her internship at Wheelock.